From Iron Man Back to Trashman: Exploring the Science Fiction and Gothic History of Comics and Graphic Novels

Posted by Stuart Lindsay on June 21, 2018 in Uncategorized tagged with , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

 

Actor Robert Downy Jr. says his portrayal of Marvel superhero Iron Man is based on venture capitalist Elon Musk.

Keith A. Spencer writes: ‘In both neoliberalism and superhero movies, politics and big political decisions happen because the elite (politicians or superpeople or supervillains) make them happen. Society is ruled over by benevolent philosopher-kings (plutocrats or superheroes both) who watch over us and aid only when needed’.¹ He furthers this conflation of individualism and neoliberalism in the superhero movie by claiming that ‘there will never be a superhero who originates from a robust democracy or an anarchist commune, because those societies don’t create individual hero myths. Those kinds of societies favour collectivism over individualism – and collectivism is anathema to the superhero genre, aside from the teams they form’ (Spencer, 2018).

 

It was not always thus, however. Many comic books and graphic novels situate themselves at multiple, simultaneous points across the entire political spectrum, ‘A paradox that creators like Alan Moore, Dave Gibbons, and Frank Miller […] explore in the 1980s’² in the Watchmen (1986-1987) and The Dark Knight Returns (1986) comics series respectively. Preceding these texts’ interrogation of the developing neoliberal consensus, backed by an aging, vigilante conservatism, is the radical, sometimes left-wing, underground ‘comix’ of the ‘60s and ‘70s. Produced as part of the anti-Vietnam War counterculture of that period, comix superhero Trashman, saviour of the anarcho-Marxist Sixth International and working-class downtrodden in a post-apocalyptic, dictatorship America, offers another alternative take on the political affiliations of the superperson.

The aesthetic, tonal, cultural and political variety of the comics and graphic novel format can be traced back to Mary Shelley’s masterpiece in Gothic and Science Fiction, Frankenstein (1818, 1831). The first edition of this novel was published 200 years ago, an anniversary and legacy that is much-celebrated in Gothic scholarship this year. Shelley’s merging of Gothic horror with Science-Fiction political allegory has influenced much of the subsequent output in (and relations between) these genres, particularly in the medium of comics. Frankenstein’s intense, psychological portrayals of the titular creator and his creation established a literary benchmark of conceiving the apocalypse and life in its aftermath. Both Victor Frankenstein and the Creature articulate humanity’s potential to bring about its own destruction in a language that is philosophically, politically, and aesthetically radical.

Frame from Bernie Wrightson’s comics adaptation of Frankenstein (Marvel Comics, 1983)

Comics and graphic novels have harnessed this novel’s radicalism in their own entrance into the literary Gothic. By making Frankenstein see his own moral degeneration in his creation’s terrible vengeance, Mary Shelley is inverting the high-minded contemplation that a happy childhood leads to a contented adult, most famously expressed by the famous line, ‘The Child is Father of the Man’, in William Wordsworth’s Romantic poem, ‘My Heart Leaps Up’ (1802). Here, the progress of Victor’s joyful upbringing, in which he was surrounded by loving family and friends, has been waylaid by his desire to break through the bonds of life and death, and has led him to become a father neglectful of his creation. Similar Gothic reflections of the self in the monstrous other appear in the narratives of DC Comics’ Batman comics and graphic novels. At the outset of The Dark Knight Returns, Bruce Wayne struggles to repress his alter ego, Batman, which he retired after the death of his crimefighting partner, Robin. During a surge of criminal activity in Gotham City, the figure of Batman, as part of Wayne’s fractured psychology, threatens to consume the now aimless billionaire’s identity whole. This creation of Wayne’s has the status of a monster. In an interior monologue, Wayne reflects: ‘in my gut the creature writhes and snarls and tells me what I need’³; the Batman identity furthers this a few pages on: ‘The time has come [to reassume the role of Batman]. You know it in your soul. For I am your soul. You cannot escape me…’ (Miller, Janson and Varley, 25).

Batman and the Joker face off in the tunnel of love in the animated adaptation of Miller’s Dark Knight Returns (Warner Bros, 2013).

Where The Dark Knight Returns is positioned in light of Shelley’s philosophical exploration on the tense relations between creator and created, other comic books stand in the wake of her radical take on Western politics. As the Creature overhears Felix Delaney educate his Arabian fiancé Safie on the history of the European and American continents from a barn connected to the family’s cottage, he hears ‘of the decline of that mighty [Roman] empire […] of the discovery of the American hemisphere, and wept with Safie over the hapless fate of its original inhabitants. […] I heard of the division of property, of immense wealth and squalid poverty; of rank, descent, and noble blood.4 Shelley’s bold positioning of Western human civilization as susceptible to social degeneration, unequal division, and genocide – shocking to outsiders like the Arabian and the newly-formed mind of the Creature – has laid down a literary template from which subsequent apocalyptic and dystopian fictions could be framed. Shelley followed Frankenstein up with another novel in exactly this vein. The Last Man, written in 1826, details the struggles of a handful of survivors in a world ravaged by plague. Comic books and graphic novels explore similar terrains.

‘The Origin of Trashman’ (Subvert Comics, 1970)

The aforementioned Trashman comix, created and drawn by Manuel “Spain” Rodriguez, depict an avenger of the working class, and gleefully exposes the entrenched class-based inequalities of America through its post-apocalyptic, dictatorship portrayal of the nation. The comix’ take on a Marxist discourse on class, in which, after a nuclear war with the USSR, America ‘then broke down into a class and race war’5 through which a fascist police state emerged. Trashman’s struggle against the members of this authority, whom he calls the ‘hangdogs of imperialism’ (Rodriguez, 1970), constitutes part of the comix’ contribution to its contemporary counterculture. But the class and race war that inaugurates this totalitarian world against which Trashman fights is not to be read as sorrowful, as in Frankenstein. Rather, the Trashman comix combine a grim determination to ‘fight the oppressor’ (Rodriguez, 1970) with a satirical send-up of these grotesquely-depicted elites. Trashman’s humorous tone, along with its use of Science Fiction as political allegory, proved influential for subsequently emerging comics, such as those in British comics magazine 2000 AD featuring Judge Dredd. This series would portray a similarly fascist, post-nuclear war American city, but to ironise and thereby critique its contemporary, actual, socio-political environment, the comics’ central figure would be a complete embodiment of the dictatorship, taken to its logical and terrifying extreme.

While these comics do not directly identify any influence from Frankenstein, as subsequent examples of Gothic psychology or political Science Fiction, they are situated in the wellspring of ideas that flow from Shelley’s novel. As Spain Rodriguez said in an interview when asked about the influences of his comix on later Sci-Fi films, comics, and comic book movie adaptations, ‘These ideas are out there. The artist pursues a cultural thread, and there are other people pursuing that cultural thread as well, so you exchange these ideas, they’re thrown back and forth, amplified, then the cultural thread goes underground, then it pops up again, often’.6 Comic creators’ collective following and sharing of a cultural thread also describes the medium’s relationship to the Gothic, drawing on its mood, artistic style, and plot and narrative conventions to striking effect. From parallels between portrayals of Batman and famous characters of the literary Gothic such as Dracula, Victor Frankenstein, or Frankenstein’s Creature, to pseudo-autobiographical renditions of historical figures associated with the Gothic such as Jack the Ripper in Alan Moore’s graphic novel From Hell (1989-1998) [collected 1999], comics’ uptake of the Gothic has been central to the former’s rise to critical and cultural acclaim. While the texts discussed here are either American or occasionally British, Gothic comics are a global phenomenon: the exploration of body horror in titles by Japanese Manga artist Junji Ito and the French comic Blacksad (200-2005) [trans. 2010] – written by Spaniards Juan Diaz Canales and drawn by Juanjo Guarnido – about an anthropomorphic black cat private detective being two notable examples.

 

References

  1. Keith A. Spencer, ‘Peak Superhero? Not even close: How one movie genre became the guiding myth of neoliberalism’, salon.com, April 28, 2018, https://www.salon.com/2018/04/28/how-superhero-films-became-the-guiding-myth-of-neoliberalism/, accessed 16.5.2018
  2. Andrew Hoberek, ‘”But – what can anyone do about it?”: Modernism, Superheroes, and the Unfinished Business of the Common Good’, Journal of Modern Literature, Vol. 39, No. 2, (Winter 2016), p.119
  3. Frank Miller, Klaus Janson, and Lynn Varley, Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, (New York City, DC Comics, [1986], 2002), p.12
  4. Mary Shelley, Frankenstein, in The Norton Anthology of English Literature, Seventh Edition, Vol. 2, (New York and London: WW Norton and Company, 2000), p.972
  5. Spain Rodriguez, ‘The Origin of Trashman’, Subvert Comics #1, (San Francisco: Rip Off Press, 1970)
  6. Jon Ascher, ‘Shifting Through the Trash: Spain and Trashman’, jonascher.com, 1998, http://www.jonascher.com/w_spain.html, accessed 18.5.2018

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