Capes and Culture
Today we have a fascinating article for you from our newest guest, Colin Smith. I imagine quite a few of you will be familiar with Colin’s very fine blog Too Busy Thinking About My Comics, where he regularly posts some very erudite pieces musing on the medium. I’m delighted to welcome Colin here with his first post, looking at how other cultures and peoples are portrayed in different types of comics:
The superhero comic isn’t always a fundamentally conservative sub-genre. Yes, it tends to be utterly obsessed with itself, and yes, that means that it’s fanatically preoccupied with its own past, with continuity, and, yes, that’s a fact that’s wearisomely true even when that continuity’s being self-consciously messed around with. But no matter how inward-looking and timid the mass of the superhero’s adventures are, needs must. The superhero book may seem doomed through complacency and a profound lack of ambition to evolve at the most glacial of rates, but there’s still a need for novelty to spice up yet another year’s worth of be-lyrced, testosterone-driven melees. Prevented as they often are by custom and inclination from developing the more human aspects of their narrative, the creators of the superhero book are at least radical in the way in which they continually filch fictional cultures and environments from other genres and mediums. Hong Kong cinema Pacific Tiger mega-cities, dubiously-inauthentic fundamentalist states, sub-Matrix virtual realities, the wastelands and city-states from the traditions of Sword’n’Sorcery, the grimmest and thinnest of post-apocalyptic futures; the superhero book has long absorbed any and all broad fictional backgrounds against which armies of super-folks might be shown knocking each other around.
But if the capacity of the superhero narrative to absorb these social and geographical elements of other narrative traditions is admirable, the use to which they’re put is considerably less laudable. For rather than putting to use these cities and mores, these races and ethnicities and nations, to any substantial and innovative use, the writers of the tales of the cape’n’chest-insignia brigade tend instead to concentrate on simply blowing them up, and for little good reason other than the making of a very big and distracting noise. And so, over the past few years, we’ve had from DC alone the destruction of New Krypton, Paradise Island, New Genesis and Apokolips, all wiped from the board with very little of emotional worth or long-term narrative value having been generated by all that Sturm und Drang. Even Mogo, the planet-sized Green Lantern, is an irresistible target for the creative mind that’s more interested in exploding the fascinating and the different rather than exploring it. What of Marvel? When Asgard is destroyed twice in half-a-decade without there being anything much of emotional consequence inspired by the double-apocalypse at all, the reader is forced to wonder whether most of the writers of superhero book have any interest at all in the worlds and the peoples they’re nominally depicting. The Kree Empire? Destroyed. The Skrull Empire? Destroyed. The Shi’ar? Ruled by Earth-folks, threatened by Earth-folks, conquered by Earth-folks. Whatever isn’t America, and a particularly white and male and middle-class version of the USA too, is represented to the reader as little more than a pinch of tourist’s colour, and stands most often as nothing but a stage-set against which the same violent and inconsequential melodramas can be played out over and over and over again.
(Thor and Asgard, (c) Marvel Comics)
In this process of appropriate and annihilate, the Big Two seem to quite misunderstand a great deal of the appeal of what’s now often referred to as the “immersive universe”. To the folks at Marvel and DC, it seems, such a fictional construct is marked by a consistency of continuity rather than by any depth of world-building. What counts, it seems, is the business of ensuring that Eyebrow Girl isn’t taking on the Earwig Killer when both of them are also supposed to be facing down the armies of the Empire Of Them Bad Hair Days. The belief seems to be that if all of a company’s superfolks are involved in adventures which don’t contradict each other, and which do overlap in a consistent fashion, then a believable and involving “immersive” reality will be maintained. But all that that soap-operatic stage management does is reduce a superhero universe to a wrestling ring in which tag-teams of costumes leap on and over each other in the hope that all their movement might obscure the lack of depth in the worlds they’re bouncing around within. Indeed, the reader can feel at times as if events are being portrayed so bombastically and so hyper-kinetically in order simply to actively disguise the fact that if the super-folks stop tearing around for just a second, their super-worlds will just cease to exist. For the immersive universes of Marvel and DC are almost totally lacking in the solid and informing foundations of politics and sociology, economics and science, culture and psychology, and a constant and hectic process of spectacular and facile change has become so much the order of the day that there’s little if anything at all of any solidity to be engaged with anymore beyond the reshuffling of costumes, hyper-powers and super-team allegiances.
And so, if the Anti-Monitor should choose to slap the Earth in one of this month’s books, as this reasoning goes, the immersive universe will feel more “real” and the threat more substantial if, for example, the foundations of an otherwise-uninvolved Atlantis are shown shifting disastrously in response. And yet, I’ve been reading about DC’s Atlantis since I was five, since the summer of Sgt Pepper’s, and I’ve no idea of why I should care about the fate of the land of Aquaman’s mother. For I’ve never been shown what everyday life in this supposedly great undersea metropolis is like for any one of its citizens, great or peripheral, and so I couldn’t care less if their totally insubstantial existence is threatened by this cosmic disaster or that super-villainous plot or not.
Nothing brings home how the typical superhero book is concerned with affluence and conformity and the business of being American/Anglo-Western as Guy Delisle’s travelogues “Burma Chronicles” and “Pyongyang”. Reading the former’s account of the MSF-Holland clinic’s struggles to support their HIV patients, for example, and of Delisle’s visit there during the rainy season, is to realise how unremarkable and stereotypical are the worlds in which the superhero narrative is usually placed. For a sub-genre which has every excuse to take its super-powered characters anywhere at all, and to present them experiencing just about any imaginable social situation, the exotic creatures of the DCU and the MU seem to stay remarkably close to home, and to remain, give or take a punch-up or two, conspicuously comfortable when they doing so. Even the X-Men of recent years, supposedly extremely uncomfortable and constantly threatened upon Utopia, hardly seem to want for anything; super-science, spacious living quarters, grand sea views, and San Francisco just across the water for all the entertainment a young-ish mutant could ever want too. If those poor mutants are struggling, then it’s the kind of hard times which a great many folks might long for. And what’s true for the X-Men is true for the superhero as a whole. Wherever they go in America and beyond, it tends to be as shallow and flimsy a setting as if they were passing through an event in a theme park; a pirate island, a space-ship, a future civilisation, all composed of familiar components and all ultimately rather insubstantial and uninvolving.
(cover to the Burma Chronicles by and (c) Guy Delisle, published Drawn & Quarterly)
Nothing emphasises how little a sense of difference there is between this America and not-America as does the way in which superheroes travel from the one to the other. For they usually simply fly in without worrying about the niceties of borders, of international law, before typically and illegally parking themselves without concern on someone else’s sovereign soil. In essence, they take America with them as they go, and there’s little effort that needs to made in passing from one world to another beyond ensuring that the transport is fully fuelled and armed. There is of course something of an irony here, for a team of non-American superfolks charging into the USA’s air-space would undoubtedly be regarded as a hostile threat to the security of the homeland, but the opposite is rarely true, and even when it is, the narrative nearly always stands with the intruders and against those arrogant foreigners who object to being invaded. And if the superhero travels with little respect for the laws and traditions of others, and at little inconvenience to themselves, then they also tend to see no more of the world beyond America’s borders than does a rock star on tour; they’re in to do the job, close the deal and then get out quickly afterwards. And because there’s mostly little sense of their having been anywhere that’s different and vital, and because the whole process is so fundamentally un-disconcerting and convenient, it’s difficult to know why anyone ever bothers. There is, it seems, no Hell or alien empire, no magical realm or foreign military complex, that the superhero can’t just smash their way into and out of, and nothing much ever happens there of any weight or consequence because all the narrative’s concerned with is yet another bout of fisticuffs.
It may seem like an absurd business to even mention, but I’ve never seen a superhero take a vaccine before charging into another country, let alone another planet. It’s a thought that struck me while reading the scene in “Burma Chronicles” where Delisle is being prepared for his trip to Rangoon with vaccines against “…DT Polio, Hepatitis A and B, Japanese Encephalitis, and ….rabies”. No superhero comic-book can afford to be being constantly slowed down with reference to jabs and passport control and visas to the likes of Kree-Lar or Paradise Island, of course. But the almost-total lack of attention in the superhero comic to the fact that the rest of the world, and indeed the universe, is not America soon becomes obvious when reading Delisle. Few creators in the sub-genre, it seems, are consciously thinking of “over there” as anything other than a slightly exotic playing field for an essentially familiar costumed brawl. Yet the fact that other places are indeed distinct and fascinating in their own right passes much of the superhero sub-genre by, which is a considerable shame. It might be imagined that outer space, as well as the rest of Planet Earth beyond God’s own country, would be all the more interesting for at least a nod to the challenges posed by differences in language and disease and culture and so on, but it appears that such matters are simply irrelevancies when compared to who-hits-who.
(welcome to scenic Latveria, (c) Marvel Comics)
As a consequence, the lands where the superfolks travel to basically divide up into (1) those places which are effectively America, and (2) those places which should be America if only they’d do things more sensibly. As such, the idea of a convincing and valid culture which isn’t structured as America is incredibly hard to find, and states which aren’t representative democracies in the modern sense, from Asgard to Themyscira, are constantly shown to be unstable and forever on the brink of disaster. They’re far less likely to be shown as fascinatingly complex and distinct cultures and far more as problems. And it’s remarkable how often the predicaments posed by both terrestrial and non-terrestrial un-American states can seem to have been solved simply by their deciding to do things just as the U.S.A. does. Introduce an election or two, do away with a nasty ol’tyrant, and all other problems, it seems, will just disappear.
Yet “America” and “should-be-America-and-obviously-isn’t” aren’t particularly useful guiding principles where the business of creating distinct and fascinatingly different environments is concerned. Whether depicting a dictatorship or a paradise just waiting to excitingly degenerate into one, the worlds we’re presented with would surely benefit from being at the very least interesting and individual. Otherwise, why leave America, or indeed New York City, in the first place?
This homogenisation of the different is particularly notable whenever the superhero book is set within the borders of a tyranny. The castle, the throne room, the secret bunker, the private quarters, the mad scientist’s laboratory, the torture chamber, the balcony overlooking the parade ground with the ranks of obedient soldiers, the characterless streets empty of all but flinching citizens; in one guise or another, these B-Movie conventions tend to be the locations in which comic-book tyrants chew their carpets while scheming their unlikely schemes in order to conquer the world. There’s little that such over-familiar settings can do to either surprise the reader or to tell them something new and interesting about the dictatorship that they’re looking at, but that’s too often all that we’re ever going to be shown; the clichés of power isolated from any convincing cultural and geographical context.
(a scene from Pyongyang by and (c) Guy Delisle)
Yet the travels of Guy Delisle through some of the least humane states in the world are always fascinating and consistently chilling too. And that’s all the more so for the fact that we never get any closer to the ranks of the ruling elite than the conscripts checking ID papers in the street or the Party apparatchiks in the offices of animation studios. The expression of power, its reach and the consequences of failing to comply with it, is made all the more unsettling because of its ubiquity in everyday life. No punches are thrown, no energy blasts hurled, no speeches delivered, no torturer’s tool kit ever reached into; one day of routine simply bleeds into the next and, avoiding the myth of regime-change through small-scale showdowns, nothing of the relationship between those that have and those that very much haven’t ever changes to the slightest degree. The superhero book will focus upon the likes of a Warlord Krang or a Brother Blood and their world-grabbing plans of conquest, and it’s presumed that the reader will be engaged by the sight of yet another mentally disordered comic-book super-dictator attempting to conquer the globe. Yet that’s a business which couldn’t be more disconnected from the typical experience of everyday life. By contrast, we certainly can empathise with, to take but one example, the lives of the nameless “volunteers” seen at a distance by Delisle in North Korea as they strive in their few free and supposedly workless hours to sweep clean the empty lanes of great rarely-used rural highways. To be shown that is to be encouraged to imagine spending Sunday afternoon alone on a local motorway trying to sweep its surface clean of the likes of leaves and minor roadkill with nothing but a household broom and for what? Little can help us understand the insanity of such a malignant state as the fact of such an apparently purposeless grind, because it helps us feel something of what it would be like to live in a nation where a private life in the Western sense is considered an evil, and where tasks which are patently absurd and utterly useless have to be undertaken as one would a religion obligation in a fundamentalist regime. It’s a point that’s underscored elsewhere in “Pyongyang”, as when Delisle provides us with the sight of yet more ‘volunteers’ watering the plants in Pyongyang’s roundabouts, and, in “Burma Chronicles”, when he details how impossibly challenging are the constant power-cuts and the nonsensically exhaustive censorship of the General’s regime.
No tyranny is efficient at very much of anything beyond propaganda and terror, and no tyrant is at heart anything other than personally inadequate, no matter how brilliant at the accumulation of power they may be. This, of course, we know. No-one who wasn’t already fundamentally broken would want to claim the responsibility of stamping their boots on the windpipes of their fellow human beings. Yet the superhero comic-book relies far too often on accentuating the power and capability of state-ruling super-villains in order to hype up the threat that they pose. In this, there’s always a risk that comic book Caesars can appear to be far more impressive and terrifying than they are repellent and defective. To over-accentuate Doctor Doom’s might and, worst of all, his “honour”, is to portray such a character in exactly the light that many a dictator would want to be seen in. (To recognise that Doom has his own code of honour does not make him an honourable man, although there’s a fair few number of creators who seem to have missed that distinction.) And by focusing on the state-controlling super-villain’s power, all the dramatic possibilities inherent in what we know of how tyrannies function are sacrificed in favour of a great big brawl between mighty ruler and heroically resisting super-heroes. Worse yet, by reducing the business of autocracy to one person’s will and might, we’re seduced into thinking far more about the pantomime glories of the super-dictator at hand than we’re encouraged to remember the complicated business of what power is, and of how it operates where the very-much-not faceless masses beyond the dictator’s compounds are concerned. Yet with all the quite literally thousands of years of history detailing all the fascinating and profoundly human details of what it’s like to have to live under the rule of a tyrant, the superhero comic tends to focus instead upon one simple, and by now mind-cloggingly dull, narrative abstraction: problem-solving regime-change through the punching out of the very bad dictator by Americans who’ve popped in to help out. The human details are lost, the political truths are mangled if not obscured, and the worst of characters can often end up seeming somewhat humorous if not actually noble because of it.
Neither the military junta of Burma nor the pseudo-Communist autocracy of North Korea ever seem to be either impressive or playfully entertaining regimes in Delisle’s travelogues. Though there’s never a sense that these states are anything other than stupendously terrifying and powerful, there’s also never the impression given by Delisle that they’re in the slightest bit necessary or admirable. And so, Delisle can’t help but scorn and laugh at the “International Friendship Exhibition” he visits miles outside of North Korea’s capital, an impossibly self-aggrandising and monumental display of the outside world’s supposed love for the il-Sung dynasty. Such a huge and ideologically imposing structure may be a marker of the impossible power of the regime, tunnelled out as it is from the interior of a mountain and designed to resist a nuclear attack, but such grand gestures never appear in “Pyongyang” as anything other than pathetic and psychotic follies. In that, Delisle accentuates how dictatorships are fearful as well as fearsome things, forever grinding down the freedom of thought as much as the physical liberties of their subjects, forever aware of the possibility of resistance. And none of the grandiose “achievements” of these regimes are in Delisle’s work anything other tawdry and contemptible.
Similarly, Deslisle’s depiction of the Burmese General’s overnight announcement that the entire capital would be moving across the country is shaped to express not the state’s might, but its utter incompetence. Seen from ground level, which is somewhere that the superhero book rarely strays, the fate of the officials ordered to immediately leave their families and travel out to the middle of nowhere, or face jail and the ruination of their lives, inspires bafflement and contempt for the regime even more than it suggests fear and an unquestioning dutifulness. “Staff sleep in their offices.” we’re told of the new barely-built city, “The houses have no water and no power. The heat is stifling, there are snakes everywhere.” This isn’t just an example of the irresistible power of the state, but also of the collective and criminal insanity of its leaders. Delisle’s mention of the fact of those snakes and their being everywhere at the site of the new and non-existent capital is such an exquisitely telling detail that the horror of the regime hits home again; no number of pages showing a tyrant’s endless armies bearing down on a helpless American city, for example, could carry the same sense of the futility of life under a totalitarian regime.
(the home of Aung San Suu Kyi, who we learn the Burmese refer to as ‘the-Lady’, not far from where the artist and his family were living in The Burma Chronicles, by and (c) Guy Delisle)
And, as a consequence, when Delisle shows himself walking past the walled and guarded compounds of Burma’s elite, with their secure and precious power supplies, with their CCTV and their hidden-from-sight riches, the reader wants to see those private palaces torn down with a fierce longing which no superhero comic-book dictatorship could ever inspire.
It’s a cliché of the superhero comic that the tyrant tends to openly commit the most appalling of crimes. Yet few if any of the world’s most despicable states care to regularly undertake the worst of their behaviour where news of it might spread in a way which they can’t control. The most appalling acts of oppression tend to happen far away, where the truth can be obscured, where refugees can be contained, and from where any rumour that spreads can serve as an unsubstantiated and profoundly useful motor of unease. To the superhero book, addicted as it is to the graphic depiction of events rather than the evocative suggestion of them, the idea of the terrible atrocity unseen is almost a heresy in itself. Yet in Delisle’s narratives, the suggestion of the hidden abomination, often apprehensively discussed by foreigners safely living far away from the killing grounds, is a compellingly chilling way of evoking how despicable the tyrannies involved are. Power is, after all, more often maintained by rumour and the trepidation which it inspires than it is by any great public spectacles of oppression.
It’s a process which is often suggested in Delisle’s work by the simplest of images. In “Pyongyang”, we’re shown a silent, empty cityscape which carries the observation that there are no handicapped people to be seen in the capital. It’s a fact which becomes more and more sinister and disturbing the more often the reader cares to consider it; where are those missing folks, it’s impossible not to wonder, and what kind of cruel and banal and utterly reprehensible processes are involved in overseeing the absence of the physically challenged? Similarly, in “Burma Chronicles”, Delisle explains how the Generals make it bureaucratically impossible for aid workers to remain in certain of the country’s districts through a gradual withdrawing of the opportunity to travel and reside there, a process which everyone knows paves the way for the secret mass murder of the inhabitants there. The tension that’s created in Delisle’s books between what little is known and the terrible thoughts which that ignorance inspires creates a far more intense involvement with the narrative than would a more explicit and stereotypical approach.
(heading off for a cycle into the countryside in the Burma Chronicles by and (c) Guy Delisle)
There’s nothing interesting in a story about a people reduced to a characterless blob, unless the whole point of the tale is concerned with how terrible such a process would be. Worse still, constantly portraying the subjects of tyranny as largely mindless automatons grossly over-estimates any despot’s capacity to impose their will so utterly that they can entirely over-write their victim’s individuality. This limitation on even the worst autocrat’s power is even true, as Delisle shows us, of North Korea, which must surely be the closest thing on Earth to a society quieted by Darkseid’s long-sought after Anti-Life Equation. Over and over again, in the most subtle and almost joyful of ways, Delisle shows us how even the most oppressive and intrusive of dictatorships will inevitably fail to stamp out everything of the individual spirit. This is true even when all that remains in both the public and private spheres is the inevitable and almost imperceptible differences caused by the inescapable fact that each citizen inhabits a different body and possesses a distinct mind. It’s a truth most touchingly displayed in the panel chosen to be the cover of “Pyongyang”, where a performance of accordion-playing by a room full of identically-dressed and styled young women can’t help but accentuate how different and individual each of the students are. Their faces may be frozen in almost matching and painfully mandatory toothsome smiles, but each smile is different, because each performer is. Though seated in rows and with little freedom at all to express themselves outside of the collective recital, each tiny difference in how the girls sit becomes all the more obvious and significant. These are anything but the interchangeable and will-less expressions of the state-mind that they’ve been trained to be, and no amount of familiarity with that panel can lessen the empathy it inspires for its nameless subjects.
(cover to Pyongyang by and (c) Guy Delisle, published Drawn & Quarterly)
“I could cry.” writes Delisle of the performance, and yet, in the way that he celebrates each player’s individuality even as he so obviously loathes their oppression, he also expresses what’s most vital and admirable about typical people in the most spirit-breaking of situations. In reading it, we could cry too, but we could also perhaps quietly cheer as well.
For one of the most pernicious effects of reducing a tyrant’s victims to a broad mass of characterless stereotypes, as the superhero comic tends to, is that it greatly lessens the reader’s concern for the folks who are the real victims of the narrative, while unwittingly celebrating the power of the tyrant who’s crushing them. If we can’t empathise with the individuals that a dictator’s oppressing, then it’s next to impossible to care about their liberty and their suffering. The presence in the superhero tale of the likes of the obligatory plucky underground, the self-interested traitor, the mass of the cowering herd and so on, doesn’t reflect anything of reality, and so inevitably fails to compel our attention. By way of a more inspiring contrast, there very much is such an involving breadth of characters present in “Burma Chronicles”. Because of that, the reader gains a sense of the manic and inspiring Brownian motion of societies that are never as controlled as their leaders would like to believe. And so the General’s regime becomes all the more ridiculous as well as all the more offensive because of the way in which Delisle delights in the individuals which he meets. From the young cartoonist whose innocent work is ‘just a bit risqué’ to be published in Burma to the folks Delisle helps work their way around the government’s nonsensical censorship of the net, to the, the picture we’re given is not of a faceless mass, but of absolutely convincing and quite recognisably typical people, each doing whatever they can to claw back whatever little control of their life is within their reach.
And in “Pyongyang”, where the opportunity to express any kind of individuality and intimacy is almost impossibly constrained, the sight of Delisle and his “comrades” from the Party drunkenly singing together during a picnic in a wilderness feels in itself like a heroic rebellion, because in its own way, it is.
(meet the happy family of comrades! Pyongyang by and (c) Guy Delisle)
If the superhero comic is going to continue to present us with its fearsomely powerful tyrants and their ill-gotten fiefdoms in supposedly non-American situations, and of course it has to, then it could only benefit from showing us the everyday consequences of despotism on the human scale. Far too many superhero books struggle to present convincing representations of New York City and its people, let alone depict a compelling Latveria or Quirac, Qward or Zenn-La. And as a consequence, appropriations of real and fictional settings alike which could stand as entertaining and meaningful locales, just as the Shire and Hogwarts, or even Rangoon and Pyongyang, do, will inevitably be worn through by a combination of repetitive storytelling and a lack of informing detail.
But Delisle’s worlds feel substantial and precious and well worth the time getting to know. We may only manage to grasp just a smattering of the lives that are lived there, and we can only ever know as much as the cartoonist himself could discover, but through that, we can empathise with the lives which we’re being shown glimpses of. For the least apparently compelling plot devices can bring an unfamiliar world to life in a way that all the flying in of superheroes, beating up of supervillains, and flying out in Quinjets never could. In “Burma Chronicles”, for example, Delisle is often shown pushing his young boy around the suburbs of Rangoon. What, the superhero devotee might ask, perhaps never acquainted with Lone Wolf And Cub, could be less compelling? And yet, as we follow son and father on their wanderings, we meet the neighbours delighted to see Delisle when his child is with him, and who largely ignore him when he’s on his own. We’re introduced to the old man – ‘stiff as a statue’ – who’s quite literally carried out by his smiling daughter just to see an occidental baby. We’re shown the armed guards stationed to prevent foreigners from walking past the home of the detained Aung San Suu Ki. We experience the joys of the Water Festival and the begging of disreputable monks, and, on the book’s final page, we watch with wonder as a father swings, as any superhero might, upon a carousel which is lifting his family high above the ground.
(taking the boy for a stroll in the Burma Chronicles, (c) Guy Delisle)
We know something of the food and the weather, and of the shops with their excesses of staff, and of the crows which feed on the garbage, and of the toads which crawl in the ceilings of the apartments. And so we care, we really care, about the removal of the monsters who squat in their power over the people of these nations, as we so rarely care about the toppling of this Baron Bedlam or that Emperor Kid Vulcan. If only some small fraction of the care and detail and emotion in Delisle’s work could be transplanted to the typical superhero tale of elsewhere and its people …