98. Progress (II)
The comic book is either lauded as a residue of child-like heroism and vigilante energy or abominated as “capeshit”—low-grade prolefeed used to promote leftist causes. Comics incline to the right because, as with films, they are a visual medium; the left works primarily in words, whereas the right works in images—hence the truism “the left can’t meme”. The image mimics reality; it is hard to moralise an image, and the left works through moralisation. Indeed, even if a comic promotes left-wing causes—even if the hero is fighting for feminism—he will do so as a hero; thus the myth, the image, is stronger than the narrative imposed by the scriptwriters.
At first, intellectuals loathed comics and intellectuals pretty much are the left. In the 1950s, the British Communists ran active campaigns to ban American comics as cultural imperialism—criminal, decadent, and perverted. The left understood that the junky energy of comics celebrated war, heroism, and individuality. It was only when the British leftist Michael Moore published his Watchmen series in the 1980s that comics were re-conceptualised as respectable, being dubbed “graphic novels”.
Moore’s work was purposively subversive of American comics, imagining the innocent heroes as wife-beaters and alcoholics. Yet, despite his subversive intent, the images were more powerful than Moore’s ideology; he found himself attracted to his libertarian characters. This was because, paradoxically, in subverting the medium—taking away the pro-American veneer—Moore, a sincere pagan, revealed a more primal aspect. Watchmen is subversive of Enlightenment America and Judeo-Christian ethics in order to promote the left—supposedly exposing America’s hypocrisy, her failure to live up to her egalitarian values—but in doing so it points back to a pagan reality more powerful than any leftist narrative.
American comics, as we understand them today, have always lived with this contradiction because the form was chiefly the creation of Jewish writers and illustrators. Superman, created during WWII, was obviously an attempt to subvert the Nietzschean—by extension National Socialist—concept of the overman by portraying the overman as basically kind. And so American comics have always been overlaid with an Enlightenment ethic that underplays the true power of the medium; it is nothing new for “capeshit” to be loaded with a progressive message. The fairy tales of Europe, by contrast, are fantastically violent and cruel. America’s culture industry removes these vicious elements because America, like the Soviet Union, is meant to be a rational paradise where nothing really bad happens, certainly no tragedy. But life is tragic: this is the difference between entertainment and art, one is a distraction from pain and the other uses pain to scourge clean.
Comics are sometimes said to be America’s real mythology; perhaps, yet the real mythology of America is found, I think, in the works of H.P. Lovecraft, Robert E. Howard, and William S. Burroughs. The comic book gods are of a more European kind. The Joker, for example, is fairly obviously Loki of Norse mythology. The Native American gods have not really been tapped; and it is only men like Burroughs and Lovecraft who have discoursed with these unspeakable creatures—the Ah Pooks of the continent. And there is a link between these night-talkers: Burroughs was taught about Mayan mythology by an old friend, possibly lover, of Lovecraft. But the time of the American gods is not yet come—or perhaps it is just long past.
Hence Batman has only achieved his most powerful form under a British director, Christopher Nolan. It was only when Batman was reimagined by primarily European creators that he began to speak to Europeans at the primal level, rather than as campy entertainment. The figure of Bane, for example, is a caricature of Sufis in the line of bin Laden—a substantial villain, if he is one. In short, once the Judeo-Christian ethic is stripped off the comic medium it becomes—being based on the adoration of the image—pagan. After all, the Abrahamic religions smash idols: the comics build them back.