Superhero Movie Fatigue

Wow, it sure is dusty in here… I haven’t been around in a while. I’ve been writing a pair of puieces for an upcoming print venture, one on The Mighty Comics Group from Archic Comics in the ’60s, and one on the satiric superhero films of the late ’60s. More on those as they come…

Elsewhere, I was recently asked why, though I grew up reading comics, I have grown increasingly averse to superhero movies. For the good of the order (both of you!), I present my response:

From my superhero/comic book entertainment, I want something either breezily unsophisticated that has a degree of breathlessness and pagentry — think Diabolik, Darkman, Super Inframan, or even the ’89 Batman — or else that has something interesting to say — what comes immediately to mind here are Philip Kaufman’s Fearless Frank and William Klein’s Mr. Freedom. One thing both these sub-genres have in common is that they DON’T necessarily subscribe to the rather reactionary logic others have described in recent superhero movies: they see that the world is a more nuanced place than good vs. bad, or powerful individuals deciding the course of history.

This ideological thrust is bigger and louder in movies (vs. comics or TV, which have a much longer time to develop episodically/serially) where there is ONE SHOT to tell the story of Hero X (or two or three if successful enough for sequiels). I still get a kick out of, say The Brave and the Bold cartoon, but wish that Joss Whedon’s Avengers had been handled by the same guy that co-wrote Cabin in the Woods: someone who had something to say about genre & its assumptions rather than someone who unselconsiously regurgitated them.


Meet My Pal Rudy

Rudy knows how to dress classy! From the 1982 Don Post mask catalog where the “Syngenor” design made its debut.

There’s not been a lot of activity here lately, on account of lots of writing elsewhere. Plenty of that has little relevance to the readers of this blog (Both of you!), but some of it may interest — I’ve been writing a column called “More Fun Comics” under the name “Rudy Syngenor”* over at a site called Hyper-Focused Media. The site is new, and doesn’t have much of a mission behind it — the present tagline is “Your digital home for all things online”, which is about as amorphously nonsensical as they come. But, I have some confidence that once the managers decide where they want it to go, it’ll shape itself into something. We’ll see.

Meanwhile, like I said, I’ve been moonlighting over there with a column about [superhero, mostly] comics that are fun — playful, pulpy, retro, goofy, self-contained — as opposed to re-capitulating some form of the [grim, gritty, “important”] superhero canon, or something like it.  I don’t think I’ll be dealing with taste/camp issues there except perhaps obliquely, but to be honest, I’m not sure I’ve done all that much of it here, either.

If you’d care to read along, you can see all of what I’ve written here. If you’re especially enthusiastic, you can “like” the site on Facebook, and they’ll let you know when new columns are out.  If you do find yourself reading, let me know what you think — I’m always happy for feedback!

*”Rudy Syngenor” started off as a joke — Syngenor is the name of a Giger-esque monster created by longtime Don Post employee William Malone for his debut feature Scared to Death in 1981, and used as well in its ostensible sequel, 1990’s Syngenor (the better of the two). My better half Katy and I found both movies on VHS within a week or two of each other, and didn’t realize they were related until we had them side-by-side. We watched them, and combined with a brief-lived running joke featuring the named Rudy (Rudy Ramone, Rudy Schwarzenegger, Rudy Vacuum, etc.), Rudy Syngenor was born, and stuck. It’s been a convenient pseudonym before, but I’ve never really used it at length… until now. And Now (as Paul Harvey used to say) You Know… The Rest of the Story.

Go Tuck Yourself

Golden Age Wonder Woman model sheet by James Tucker

Golden Age Wonder Woman model sheet by James Tucker

A late night surfing images led me to the deviantart page of James Tucker, the artist and producer behind the late, lamented Batman: Brave and the Bold show, Legion of Super-Heroes, and even some episodes of Batman: The Animated Series and the related DCAU shows. There’s some great stuff there: character designs from both B&TB and LOSH, a Dick Sprang pastiche, and this really provocative Wonder Woman model sheet, done as a one-off.

James Tucker's cover to Batman: Brave and the Bold #1

James Tucker’s cover to Batman: Brave and the Bold #1

He’s got good taste in his “favourite” selections, too, including this eye-popping Mark McHaley Adam West Batman, and a great-looking Earth-2/B&TB Robin pin-up by UK comics artist Jack Lawrence.

I really enjoy Tucker’s work, and his evident appreciation of the lower-tier and deliberately overlooked corners of the DC catalog. I hope he posts more frequently on his site, now that I’ve found it, and I hope more of his work finds its way across my TV screen soon.

Hope You Survive the Experience!

"X-Punks", a "Silly Cover" by David Gross, From Amazing Heroes 95, May 1986

“X-Punks”, a “Silly Cover” by David Gross, From Amazing Heroes 95, May 1986

X-Men: Once the punk alternative to all the bloated old DC superhero comics. (dave) –from Retro Hell by the editors of Ben Is Dead Magazine*

Admittedly, I’ve never had much of a taste for the X-Men, in part because 1) I have a real soft spot for the DC stable, especially the “bloated old” parts; and 2) by the time they got to me, the X-Men were as far from punk as could be — the popular kids in school liked them… EVERYONE liked them, in those immediately pre-Image days.

John Byrne does the "new" X-Men in the "old" X-Men's per-graduation costumes. Kitty Pryde would rock this look a bit later.

John Byrne does the “new” X-Men in the “old” X-Men’s per-graduation costumes. Kitty Pryde would rock this look a bit later.

Consequently, much of my exposure to the “best” stuff X-Men had to offer has be in historical, periodized dribs and drabs. Arnold Drake, Steranko, Roy Thomas & Neal Adams, Claremont & Cockrum & Byrne & Leonardi… you get the idea.

I have a few friends whose taste I mostly trust that simply adore the X-Men,and very actively read & collect them. When I run into my friend Meghan once or twice a year at a convention, I delight in playing the “Who’s dead?/What’s_______ up to?” game with her about the X-characters. It’s like a bizarre kaleidoscope of alternate dimensions, mistaken futures, deaths and rebirths. Any status quo that might have once been is completely washed away. And yet, I catch glimpses of things, like promo art for the all-X-Women X-book on the horizon (or perhaps already out now?), and realize that I seem to know all the characters involved at least to some degree — it’s old home week for Xavier’s kids.

A Dave Cockrum house ad for John Byrne's time on the book

A Dave Cockrum house ad for John Byrne’s time on the book

The X-Men comic I’ve most enjoyed has been Grant Morrison’s early 2000s tour-de-force on New X-Men, which I quite enjoyed for its playing out of the Claremont playbook, and its sense of finality. It comes as no surprise that my aforementioned X-friends have little love for this period;it seems to thwart much the amorphous soap-opera swirling that seems to be much of the book’s usual appeal.

*Is this true? Was there a “punk” period of X-Men? I mean, punk like Repo Man, where no-one gives a fuck and the world burns as it turns? Or does this (and the picture above, and Weezer’s “In the Garage”) really only speak to the way the book felt at the time in contrast to more staid material? I think the answer might be Sienkiewicz’s run on New Mutants, but would be more satisfying (as my pal Stuart points out) if there was something like a self-rightious, self-justified Hellions series from that same mid-80s moment.

Enter… The Danger Council!

danger council

The Danger Council was a concept that ran as a contest on the back cover of The Comics Reader #194  in 1981. Supergirl sums it up rather well, but in case you can’t be bothered to click, The Danger Council (initials DC, get it?) was an Earth One team made up of characters not otherwise on any teams — which is to say, mostly third- or fourth-tier characters. This was the stable that Marv Wolfman’s Forgotten Heroes in Action Comics and DC Comics Presents were ultimately drawn from, and also that James Robinson mined successfully during his tenure on Starman and Superman. This team was the brainchild of Mike Tiefenbacher, at the time both the editor of The Comics Reader and occasional contributor of the “What Ever Happened to…?” back-up strip in the aforementioned DC Comics Presents (a series of stories I admit I’m rather fond of).

How many can you name? How many haven’t appeared since? How many have action figures now?

After the jump, see Tiefenbacher’s explanation of the characters, and announcement of the winners (no one got them all correct) from CR #197.

Anyone out there have any idea what villain or force was behind the capture of all the other Earth One heroes?

Continue reading

New Vocabulary!

While looking through a friend’s wife’s copy of Allure while indisposed, I found a new word: maskenfreiheit (German), or the freedom that comes from being masked.

A New Way of Thinking About the Same Old Things

I saw the new, much hyped Avengers movie the other day. I didn’t much care for it, which puts me in a very small percentile of its viewers, apparently. I learned years ago that I could just as easily pass on these sorts of adaptations of things I sort of like into things I often don’t — or at least thought that I had. Early buzz from people I trusted, coupled with a genuine enjoyment of Joss Whedon’s recent Cabin in the Woods, a competent deconstructive meta-comedy horror flick, made me think there might be something to like in what otherwise looked like a big-name, ready-for-7-11 summer blockbuster merchandising extravaganza. In short, I’ve never seen the live action Transformers movies of the last decade, but I imagine them from descriptions I’ve encountered to be much like Avengers: lots of arguing, explosions, and fast-moving action sequences. Like Danny Glover, I’m getting too old for this.

Left with some time to myself that couldn’t be spent on more productive things, I came up with the following chart to try and explain to a younger friend why I didn’t care for the film, and in doing so, believe I’ve made a really useful tool to demarcate where popular media stands in terms of aesthetic ideology. I’m no Pierre Bourdieu, but I think this might yield good fruit.

media axis

It’s relatively self-explanatory. The vertical axis indicates how seriously the media object takes itself, the horizontal shows how prone to agression, violence, and masculine posturing it is. Avengers would find itself somewhere in the lower-middle of the bottom right quadrant.

One thing that interested me quite a bit was The Avengers‘s embrace of sentimentality explicitly in  its script: the word gets used three or more times, and almost always in a perjorative way, but usually by people whose moral/aesthetic judgements we aren’t meant to trust. If Loki practically spits when he says the word, it can’t be that bad, right? Thismade me realize something I’d only considered before in passing: “bad-ass”ery is masculine sentimentality. With this in mind, the straight/badass corner begins to look awfully kitsch indeed. I realize I’ve stacked the cards in my favor here (say! the marriage of the aesthetic categories that I’m least responsive to are aesthetically bankrupt!), but I’m interested in how this model might be blind. I plan to return to this in the near future.

"Red Son" Weisinger-style Silver Age War of Light

Kerry Callen’s silver-age style covers for recent “badass” comics seldom fail to make me wish I could read these instead…

I first encountered Callen via his goofy and charming late-80s book Directory to a Non-Existent Universe (a parody of Who’s Who and the Marvel Handbook), but haven’t seen much of his work in print since. Thankfully the internet has changed that.

See more art in this vein at Kerry Callen’s blog, (I especially dig his “What if DC published Marvel in the 1960s” series), and look here for other entries in the “Great Comics that Never Happened” series that begat these images.

Just the Way They Never Were

What’s in a Name?

So, “High Camp Super-Heroes”. What’s up with that? At a basic level, it comes from an old paperback:

In the 1960s, the convergence of several different, though ultimately probably related, forces gave rise to the book at left:

1) The shifting priorities of intellectuals, following the debates about “middlebrow” culture that ran in “little magazines” from a position of high-culture supremacy. Though there are warning shots before, the publication in 1964 of Susan Sontag’s much-read essay “Notes on ‘Camp'” gives the basic toolbox of ironic cultural appropriation that had largely been the province of the urbane gay community to the larger public — first the big-city intellectual set, and ultimately to America at large. The rise of “pop” art at this same moment, which could best be approached with these same principals in mind, did wonders to promote the camp logic to the otherwise uninitiated.

2) The rise of Marvel Comics, under the editorship of Stan Lee and the art talent of Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko and others, as a sea-change in the look, feel, and meaning of the comic-book superhero, spawning a hoard of imitators.

3) The Batman TV show and subsequent cultural “Batmania” that began in January, 1966. Batman pitched the idea of ironic distance from the debris of popular culture, intentional humor that appeared on the surface to be unaware of itself, and over-the-top performativity from the “villains” that made them as, if not more, attractive to the viewership than the heroes. As my friend Jaz Williams has asserted, this was a logical move forward from the “weird family” sitcoms (Bewitched, Addams Family, Munsters, etc.) that had dominated the airwaves in previous seasons. America bought in for a season, and “camp” logic went mainstream.

The book above, High Camp Superheroes (Belmont B50 695, 1966) presents material from the Mighty Comics line, an imprint of the same company that publish Archie comics, featuring their superhero stable characters that date back to the 1940s in a setting deliberately reminiscent of the dynamics of Marvel Comics. The stories (which, as the cover says, are written by Superman’s poppa, Jerry Siegel) are silly and banal in a way that seems almost disdainful of the material — not terribly “high camp” at all. “High camp,” of course, means material that’s designed to be consumed by a knowing camp audience. This material, however, is more aptly called “low camp”: kitsch material that is ripe for re-appropriation by and re-investment from an audience culturally divorced from the original moment/meaning of the object. There’s so much sense here that the material is trash and beneath everyone involved that the character on the cover identified as Fly-Man isn’t that character at all. At the same time, the title “Low Camp Superheroes” wouldn’t sell to any sort of knowing potential audience. And so, this “kitsch” object makes itself moreso by its mis-naming, and trivializes material that doesn’t seem like it wants to be.  Nonetheless, the Mighty Comics characters are super camp, at least from the cultural moment we’re in at present. That difference makes a difference.

And so, this is where we take our name. I want to think that what I plan to cover here is more “high camp” than not: I’m writing for a more-or-less like-minded audience that has investment in the archness and possibility of camp. Low camp is a good time, but it often ends up laughing at rather than laughing at and with.

Lo! There Shall Come…

I’ve wanted a place for some time where I could articulate my thoughts on camp, “pop”, and re-purposing popular culture. This looks like it will be that place. I’ll almost certainly talk about superheroes, and about the comic-book medium, but I also plan to talk about film (not necessarily about superheroes) and probably about critical theory. Sound like fun? Me too. We’ll see where it goes, eh?

Paul Lynde as Superman, our mascot

Paul Lynde as Superman, our mascot here at HCSH