Category Archives: Essays

No Sex, Possibly Aspirin, but Definitely No Rock and Roll


Many years ago, I wrote an essay on the extraordinary sexual politics of Angela Thirkell‘s novel Wild Strawberries.  To summarise, the dim young heroine spends most of the novel convinced that a man is about to propose to her because . . . he took her out to a restaurant.  Now, in an era where even minor surgery is not indicative of a relationship in progress, such an attitude may seem ludicrous, but it was my opinion that even in the 1930s what Thirkell was describing was unrealistic in the extreme.  My opinion, shaped by many too many years reading the world of P G Wodehouse, himself no encourager of loose behaviour, led me to believe that pretty much any intimacy short of actual sex was considered acceptable between the unmarried young in good society.

The assembled great and good of the Angela Thirkell Society of the UK did not agree with me.  They argued that Thirkell was, in fact, not a creator of imaginary realms, but a documenter of reality as it was, and that all my sources that screamed otherwise to the high hills were mere nothings as compared to her cast iron testimony of the way things were.  I was not convinced, and so I wrote this essay rebutting them.  Needless to say, the Society was not pleased, and more-or-less black balled me forthwith.  I revive it now largely because it is amusing and well written, and also because I can use it to draw some conclusions about attitudes to the past: I am now able to see beyond the simple chagrin of rejection to understand why it was that the Society had to reject my work.  So here we go.

The essay

Angela Thirkell in 1914

When I wrote my piece on Wild Strawberries I had not yet encountered Anne Fielding, that oracle of bad poetry.  Having read of her antics in Peace Breaks Out I have only one thing to say: Oh God.  I accept that Anne’s intellect (which was clearly never great, if it was of the same order as that of her mother) has been sapped by her association with the abominable Miss Bunting, but it is still disturbing to find a character touted as a paragon of higher education complaining that David Leslie behaved badly by being nice to her while having no intentions, honourable or otherwise.

While on the subject of Anne Fielding, if she had to quote poetry, why Tennyson?  Why not a good poet?  Is he the only poet Thirkell thought her readers would have heard of?  Or did she have a subtler agenda?  Tennyson is emblematic of high Victorianism, an era which any right-minded person would consider philistine and utterly immoral.  Aleister Crowley summed this up with admirable clarity: “craven fear, prurient shame and narcotic piety: of such is the kingdom of Tennyson”.  Thirkell seemed to think this was the epitome of cultural excellence.  It is strange that two thinkers of the early twentieth century should disagree on so basic an issue.

Nice Picture; Shame about the Book

Thirkell’s reactionary social attitudes made her promote the Victorian period as an alternative to the hated realities of post-war life.  This enforced on her the (from a modern perspective) comical celebration of one of England’s worst poets.  The spectacle of an author expressing foolish opinions derived from contentious theories is not unique to Thirkell.  Elizabeth Wurtzel, in her book Bitch (which would be entirely undistinguished if she had not elected to appear naked on its cover), expounds a theory that leads to the assertion that Ted Hughes is no more than a “footnote in his dead wife’s life”[1].  Like Thirkell, Wurtzel does not seem well acquainted with the subject under discussion, but she doesn’t let that stop her from airing her prejudices.

Perhaps Thirkell harps on about Lord Half-a-league because he is the symbol of a lost Victorian Eden, preserved in Barsetshire, despite half a century of civilisation?  This makes a lot of sense.  When I first read Wild Strawberries I was flabbergasted by the irrational behaviour of its heroine.   The only really close literary parallel that I could think of was Angel Clare in Tess of the D’Urbevilles.  This satirically named gentleman suffers from a morbid theology which says that Tess is married not to him (her lawful husband), but to the man who seduced / raped her. I can accept these attitudes in Hardy’s era (though I share his outrage at them) but I find them a bit startling in the world of Vile Bodies.  I now believe that my confusion was caused because my working hypothesis at the time of my first reading the book – that Thirkell was a realistic novelist – was incorrect. If her depiction of society was driven by ideology, the problems disappear.  David Leslie’s girlfriends are much easier to explain if we assume that Barsetshire is not meant to be realistic.  It is idealistic.  Exactly what kind of person would see la Fielding as ideal is another matter entirely.

In this article I will explore this idea by revisiting the subject matter of the aforementioned article in greater depth, exploring attitudes to love and courtship in Thirkell’s world.  Part one looks at her ideal of pure womanhood, and sex rears its ugly head in the forms of Phoebe Rivers and Jessica Dean. Part two compares Thirkell’s world-view with that of Nancy Mitford – a contemporary writer noted for her realism.  As we shall see, there is considerable evidence supporting my thesis.

David Leslie has trouble with virgins.  In fact, with hindsight, I should have chosen that as the title of my article in the previous issue of Thirkell.  Recall also that at the time I wrote it I had not been privileged to make the acquaintance of the Fielding being, and the plentiful extra evidence that her exploits would have given me.  In my newly enlightened state I find the whole thing more mystifying than ever.  What is it about Thirkell’s young unmarried women that makes them constitutionally incapable of treating any male acquaintance outside the forbidden degrees of affinity as being anything other than a potential husband?  In fact, given how startlingly minimal the mental apparatus of some of them seems to be, I am not wholly convinced that they would be very concerned about forbidden degrees.  Certainly the lower orders appear to be whole-heartedly in favour of incest, judging from the unnatural preponderance of “village idiots” (to use Thirkell’s charming description of those with learning difficulties) in Barsetshire.  I suppose the county may object to a too-obvious revival of the marital practices of the Pharaohs, but I see signs in the eugenic broodings of Lady Fielding of a trend in that direction.

Consider the evidence.  In Wild Strawberries Mary Preston seems to think that she is engaged to David because he talks to her in a fairly friendly way.  When he invites her to lunch it is obvious that this is almost a proposal (in her mind), and she reels in horror at the though that he actually invited another woman.  Finally, David’s moronic brother more or less has to ask permission before he can bring himself to burble words of passion at Mary’s feet.  In Pomfret Towers, Lady Pomfret prepares to welcome Alice Barton as countess-in-waiting purely on the strength of the heir’s seeming to like her.  Of course, what makes Julian Rivers a rotter (apart from being a modern artist – anything other than unswerving kitsch is a sure sign of depravity in Thirkville) is that he spends so much time with Alice and never proposes.

In Marling Hall, David is at it again, but now the excitement is elsewhere.  Lettice Watson fancies Captain Barclay something rotten, and ties herself into knots, because he is obviously Lucy Marling’s property.  Why?  She got to him first, and seems to like him.  In Love Among the Ruins there are hints of necrophilia, given that the young woman who inhibits Our Hero and Our Heroine from achieving a satisfactory conclusion would appear to have been dead for some years.  In Peace Breaks Out there is an outbreak of lunacy (and some deeply disturbing comments about ballet), starring guess who.  Martin spots his uncle holding his beloved Sylvia’s hand, jumps to the conclusion (as would we all, I am sure) that they are planning their honeymoon, resolves on suicide, and is rescued only when Rose Bingham suggests to him that he give reality a try.  In addition, we have the enthralling spectacle She Who Must Be Avoided, a.k.a. Anne Fielding, suffering from a crush.  Anne convinces herself that David loves her, because he pays her attention, and then proceeds to suffer the agonies of the damned over his selfishness (translation: David talks to Anne, therefore he must renounce all other women).  One of his high crimes and misdemeanours is writing to Sylvia mentioning Rose Bingham but not Anne.  Time for some amateur dramatics:

But a hostess must not derogate from her hostess-ship, so Anne went on chattering and giggling, but all the time, which gave her a miserable satisfaction, with death in her heart; so what with laughing with Sylvia and secretly despising David, she felt quite light-headed.  

Anne is all shook up:

Some kind of revenge on one who was base enough to be nice to Sylvia and herself while toying with the horrible Rose Bingham, was clearly indicated.  If only Robin were here, he would understand.

Fortunately she is saved from the ignominy of fashioning a voodoo doll by the memory of her mentor Miss Bunting, who did not entirely approve of David.  The fact that Miss Bunting would probably not have approved of the Lord Almighty, had she ever been introduced to Him, is neither here nor there. Anne resolves to wed her tiresome schoolmaster (who, judging from the above, must have had his brain surgically removed at the same time as his foot).  Rose proposes to David, so he is now permitted to talk with young women without their automatically eyeing up his reproductive potential.  The rogue male is tamed, and all is well in Barset.

It is understandable that in an era before serial monogamy had become a practice endorsed by all the best celebrities[2] Thirkell should hold dear the belief that matrimony ended only by death (her women seem to prefer death to divorce as a means of removing unwanted spouses) is the norm.  It is, however, rather startling to see that she believes in the rigorous pairing off of the sexes prior to matrimony, and that there should be no concept of friendship between the unwed.  Thirkell would clearly have been a staunch supporter of the Taleban’s social policies.

Anne Fielding, the loathly one, is a nice girl, but fortunately for the sake of our sanity, not all girls in Thirkell are nice.  Certainly Rose Bingham does not merit that description.  She talks to men on equal terms, she proposes to David Leslie, and in Peace Breaks Out she entirely fails to sympathise with Martin’s impassioned maundering about how David has ruined his life by talking about children with Sylvia.  Of course, she also lives in London, which is a sure sign (at least in the later novels) of being not quite quite.    Clearly by the time Thirkell was writing Private Enterprise, where London is made out to be rather like hell only not so salubrious, she had forgotten that in High Rising Laura Morland spends most of the year in the big bad city.  Or that in Summer Half Lydia (whose latter-day incarnation apparently hates London) was in the habit of popping up to the metropolis to take in a show.

Are there any young ladies in Thirkell’s novels who do not subscribe to the “three words and you’re out” theory of courtship?  I use the word ladies advisedly, because young persons of the lower orders seem to be in a state of permanent rut, which militates against their having very many inhibitions at all.  Surprisingly there are some – Jessica Dean and Phoebe Rivers fit the bill precisely.  Both are at ease with men they are not married to and have no intention of marrying.  Anybody who has followed the interminable saga of Oliver Marling’s infatuation from Private Enterprise to infinity and beyond will be aware that Jessica has no trouble giving an unwanted male the brush-off. It is interesting that Oliver cannot understand why this seemingly nice and uncommitted girl doesn’t immediately fall into his arms when he sends a smouldering glance in her direction.  Phoebe gets on perfectly well with Gillie Foster but does not have a burning desire to bear his children, and many of her difficulties with Guy Barton stem from his inability to comprehend his relation to her as being anything other than that of the affianced.  Though Phoebe has problems, they are not rooted in sex.  If anything, they derive from the psychological warfare waged against her by her mother, who demands that she behave like a truly womanly woman.  It is interesting that the young people in Shaw’s Philanderer considered this expression a mortal insult a mere forty years earlier.

Phoebe’s and Jessica’s distinctiveness goes further.  Very few of Thirkell’s women are ever described physically; for example we have no real idea what Lydia actually looks like.  The way they dress is also often unclear (presumably they do dress – manners in Barsetshire, though eccentric, are not so louche as to embrace nudism).  The occasional exception, such as the description of Mrs Brandon’s fluffy skirt in Cheerfulness Breaks In merely reinforces this; clothing tends to be left to the imagination.  Alice Barton is a typical Thirkell woman.  She has three evening dresses and all we are told is their colour. We never find out whether they are on of off the shoulder, or how long they are.  Now consider Phoebe Rivers, the atypical woman:

She was wearing the kind of frock technically known as ‘little’ … and had the most elegant legs, the thinnest stockings, and the highest heeled shoes imaginable.


Phoebe, in the most clinging and barebacked of gowns, more sophisticated in hair and makeup than ever.

She stands out from other people in Pomfret Towers as the possessor of a vibrant physicality – for once we can imagine what a character looks like.  Turning to Jessica Dean, in Love Among the Ruins she paints her legs to create the appearance that she is wearing stockings.  The description makes it clear that she has a high hemline and that plenty of leg is exposed to the admiring view of its owner (and presumably any males who happen to be in the vicinity).

There is an unusual degree of physical immediacy about the depiction of these two young women, particularly when compared with Thirkell’s other characters.  They come across as having a genuine physical presence, and not just as bodiless voices.  They also have a degree of allure.  Jessica complacently admires her own charms, and expects to be admired (in a purely physical, as opposed to ideal) sense by others.   Phoebe also exudes physical attraction, though she seems rather bitter than complacent.  I can only think of one other example of a character described with such attention to physical appearance.  Eileen, the barmaid of the Red Lion in Cheerfulness Breaks In is: “The most dazzling blonde Mr Bissell had ever seen, dressed in skin tight black.”  It is clear from Everard’s introduction of her that the local gentry do not exactly object to enforced contemplation of her physique: “Besides here we get Eileen.  Look at her.”  By Thirkell’s standards this is almost lubricious.  Of course, barmaids are not noted for their chastity.  Or for objecting to being treated as sex objects.

Is it a coincidence that Phoebe and Jessica, who are at ease with men in a way that other women could scarcely imagine (Alice Barton is shocked at Phoebe’s assurance), are the only two who come across as being genuinely sexy?  Mrs Brandon and Mrs Dean may be flirts who inspire pure minded devotion in silly young, middle aged, old and probably even deceased men, but they don’t have the flagrant physicality of Miss Rivers and Miss Dean[3].  Also observe that on the occasions when the younger pair’s appearance is described in unusual detail, there is definite emphasis on the fact that they are exposing their bodies to public view.

This may be a hint at their profession.  It is surely not a coincidence that Jessica and Phoebe act.  Their choice of career suggests a degree of awareness and worldliness on their part that is not shared by Thirkell’s other women.  Neither of them is a blushing ingénue, nor would either play that role.  As you would expect from professional actresses (Thirkell’s more proper ladies may act, but only if they do it badly) they are very much aware of their sexuality and the influence that it gives them over those men whose brain is only their second favourite organ.  Phoebe’s self-description in Pomfret Towers makes this very clear: “I’ve appeared in several dirty Sunday night shows.”  This comment, with its suggestion that Phoebe’s place in the glorious world of theatre is in that segment known to connoisseurs as “Adult” (“Live show – Girls, Girls, Girls!” would be another way of putting it), is extraordinary.   From the frank acceptance of one’s body as a source of revenue to casual sex is not a very long step, and it is one that Phoebe had probably taken.  It is a shame that Thirkell decided to give such a fascinating character only one outing, killing her off with a strong dose of holy matrimony.   Perhaps she felt that Phoebe would not readily fit in the atmosphere of post-war petulance that poisons her later works.  Jessica Dean is more suitable, being a sanitised version of the Scarlet Woman without Phoebe’s cynicism and rebellion, though oomph and dubious virginity are all present and incorrect.

Why is it that when Thirkell wanted to invent unmarried women who feel able to befriend a man without committing to bear his children, she was unable to make them otherwise normal, but felt forced to create sexpot actresses who were probably not virgins on their wedding nights?  This fits very well with my thesis that Barsetshire is not real, but ideal.  In the neo-Victorian time capsule, untainted by the civilising influence of decadence, that is Barsetshire there is no middle ground between the archetypes of good wife / mother and actress / whore.  Thirkell was forced into this categorisation of her women characters by her self-imposed agenda.

So I have shown that Thirkell’s depiction of the relationship between the sexes in the 1930’s and 1940’s is extremely polarised, with the norm being virtual segregation before marriage.  I argued that this is not representative of reality as it was, but rather reflects Thirkell’s desire for a restoration of Victorian certainties (no doubt together with the huge hypocrisy required to make those certainties sustainable).

A better writer

To support this contention, I will now compare Thirkell’s depiction of love, courtship and sex with that given in The Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate.  Nancy Mitford is well suited for this.  She described the world that Thirkell’s novels purport to, and it cannot be denied that she was herself County.  In fact she went one better – she was Aristocracy.  In addition, these two novels were notoriously considered to be romans à clef at the time of their first publication, so we can be certain that they accurately depict the society of the time in a way that we cannot be with Thirkell.

Compared to the puritanical world of Barsetshire, where ladies can hardly bring themselves to admit to pregnancy (with the inevitable exception of Jessica Dean, who trumpets her happy state far and wide in County Chronicle), let alone its invariable precursor, Mitford is a shock.  In Love in a Cold Climate Jassy expects recently married relatives to pass on sex-tips:

Hardly had I arrived in the house that I was lugged off to their secret meeting-place, the Hons’ cupboard, to be asked what IT was like.

“Linda says it’s not all it’s cracked up to be,” said Jassy, “and we don’t wonder when we think of Tony.”

“But Louisa says, once you get used to it, it’s utter utter utter blissikins,” said Victoria … “It is unfair, nobody ever tells … Very well then, we shall go to our marriage beds in ignorance, like Victorian ladies, and in the morning we shall be found stark staring mad with horror and live sixty more years in an expensive bin, and then perhaps you’ll wish you had been more helpful.”

 She also takes paedophilia in her stride:

But the fascinating thing was after the lecture he gave us a foretaste of sex, think what a thrill.  He took Linda up on to the roof and did all sorts of blissful things to her; at least, she could easily see how they would be blissful with anybody except the Lecturer.  And I got some great sexy pinches as he passed the nursery landing.

All forms of sexuality are present – Cedric Hampton is triumphantly and exuberantly homosexual.  In Barsetshire, we assume that Miss Hampton and Miss Bent have been lovers at some point, but now their principle source of pleasure seems to be gin.  Compared with Cedric, who bestrides the world like a polymorphic colossus, they are a mere footnote.  Nancy Mitford’s characters do not merely enjoy sex, they revel in it; Thirkell’s seem to be stuck in the anal stage (and I frankly doubt that Oliver Marling is even that advanced).

Turning to the sexual segregation of the young unmarried that pervades Thirkell, there is an interesting passage in The Pursuit of Love that makes it evident that this is idealised Victorianism.  Linda Radlett has been invited to lunch by her amour Tony Kroesig.  She longs to go, but there is a problem:

The Alconleigh standards of chaperonage were medieval; they did not vary in the slightest degree from those applied to Uncle Matthew’s sister, and to Aunt Sadie in youth.  The principle was that one never saw any young man alone, under any circumstances, unless one was engaged to him … The argument, often put forward by Linda, that young men were not likely to propose to girls they hardly knew, was brushed aside as nonsense.

Linda goes to lunch, is found out, and all hell breaks loose.  Uncle Matthew’s reaction would probably be immoderate if she had installed a red light outside her bedroom and taken to placing advertisements in phone-boxes.  Linda does get a season, though:

We were chaperoned, as was to be expected, with Victorian severity.  Aunt Sadie or Uncle Matthew literally never let us out of sight of one or the other.

I think this makes it pretty clear what is going on in Thirkell’s novels.  The troubles of David Leslie (and all those dim dumb dolls we described in part one) can be attributed to a slightly softened version of the Victorian model for courtship.  Thirkell doesn’t go so far as to demand total segregation, but the idea that there is nothing between mere acquaintance and betrothal clearly harks back to the era of Aunt Sadie’s youth, and is not representative of the time in which the novels are set.

Now it may be argued that most young Barsetshire women have parents old enough to have had direct experience of Victorianism or its aftermath, and have been successfully indoctrinated with its attitudes.  I can easily imagine this to be true of dinosaurs like Lady Fielding, who seriously seems to believe that she belongs to a different species from common humanity; she comes across as a prototype for Lord Melchett, prejudiced against anything she doesn’t understand and intent on preventing contact between Anne and lesser breeds, for fear of pollution by Frankenadams.  But can this be true for all the families and all the young people of Barsetshire?  On the evidence of Nancy Mitford’s novels, probably not.  Uncle Matthew and Aunt Sadie may espouse Victorian values, but those values have signally failed to be adopted by their daughters (Linda takes to serial monogamy; Jassy runs off to America and marries a film star).  It cannot even be said that Thirkell represents the views of the County, as opposed to London.  Uncle Matthew loathes the County, and would be likely to do the exact opposite of what it expects of him.  In Love in a Cold Climate, Lady Mountdore (who epitomises the County) would be happier if her daughter Polly were more interested in sex, going so far as to wish she had had an affair and deliberately inviting an erotomaniac Frenchman to stay in the hope of provoking one.  Respectable ladies hearing a fumbling by night think that he has decided to dally with them and lie in delighted anticipation, unaware that they are being robbed.  Respectable gentlemen tell the intruder the way to their wives’ bedrooms.  We have to conclude that Thirkell simply flies in the face of reality by portraying an entire county whose people, of all ages, are relics of a long discarded Victorianism.

We are (regrettably) back in Tennyson country.  Thirkell’s take on sex and courtship clearly reflects her desire to return to a less complicated time, when morality was a simple matter of grinding the faces of the poor into the mud, treating women as property and ferociously enforcing the sexual double standard.


Now you can perhaps see why the Thirkell Society were so unhappy.  The myth, for it clearly is a myth, there can be no doubt about it, that Thirkell was an accurate social historian is only part of the equation.  If one feels uncomfortable in the modern world, there is a tendency to look to other eras for places where one might have felt comfortable, often to the time of childhood.  But one looks back not to the reality of that past (who would want to live in an era were a dental abscess was a death sentence?) but to an idealisation.  And Angela Thirkell, by means of her creation of a myth of mid-century county England, created such an idealisation.  So it was necessary to the Society and its members to believe that she was a historian, paradoxically, precisely because what she had created was such a splendid myth, so utterly resonant with their needs.


[1]    Page 186, paperback edition.  Yes, I did buy a copy.  The people who designed the cover knew what they were doing.

[2]    Of course, some trailblazers had already started on the onerous task of popularising this exciting new fashion, notably in Nancy Mitford’s novels.  Clearly “the Bolter” was a revolutionary before her time.

[3]    Interestingly, however, neither Mrs Brandon nor Mrs Dean are “County”.  It is hard to imagine (say) Mrs Belton reclining on a sofa having poetry read to her by a starry-eyed idiot.

Alas, poor Lois

The Witch of MetropolisIntroduction

Over the past couple of weeks, I have been reading the excitingly strange pages of the newly published first volume of reprints of that strange blast from the past, the adventures of Superman’s Girlfriend Lois Lane.  And before those of you less devoted to ephemera than I raise a hand, yes there really was a comic with that title, running continuously from 1958 to 1974, which is pretty respectable as these things go.

Now, as you may have gathered from the picture, this was not one of your serious, weighty comics that pose deep questions about this and that.  Rather it was lightweight, indeed, positively silly, and it may safely be said that its only real redeeming feature is that it did inspire some elements of Grant Morrison’s All Star Superman.  Now, there’s nothing wrong with silly; the Tales from Bizarro World are always silly and frequently hilarious.  The problem is that there’s something else in Lois Lane, a sour quality to the stories and the way they are told, which marks them out and raises questions.  And so, I shall pose, and then try to answer, those questions, without further ado.

The problem

Who read it?

Lois Lane was created as a way of cashing in on the popularity of Superman and his penumbra of characters.  DC had been doing very well with the relentlessly brainless Superman’s Pal, Jimmy Olsen for some while, and they, very naturally, thought it would be a nice idea to try to attract female readers with a similar title aimed squarely at them.  Hence Superman’s Girlfriend, Lois Lane was born.  As the book was relentlessly feminine in approach, dealing with such weighty issues as weight-gain, finding a date for the sorority dance, jealousy of other women, etc, while rigorously excluding all forms of weightier fare, with Superman taking the role of a wise and chiding parent rather than a hero, I think it is safe to say that its audience probably was largely female.  And as it managed to last for sixteen years, that audience must have been reasonable large.

My point, which will become important later, is that this is not a comic written about women for men.  This is no prototype of the erotic comics of the ’60s and ’70s.  Though Lois is depicted as being reasonably attractive, she is always well covered, and the art is simply miles away from that of the pin-up or man’s magazine (contrast the cover above with the 1960 Bill Ward ‘adult’ cover shown here).  Moreover, her relationship with Superman, and everyone else, is chaste in the extreme; it is fair to say that the characters behave like children, with the motivations of children, rather than anything ‘adult’.   This is the kind of regrettable relationship and romance fodder that Jack Kirby created, and which was (and is) overwhelmingly read by women.  As such, its success means that women wanted to read it.

  What did they read?

So, turning to the content, we find something rather strange.  One might have expected that a comic about Lois Lane which was aimed at an audience of women might, well, be sympathetic to its central character, and portray her in a positive light.  Remember at this point that we are decades away from such anti-heroines as Harley Quinn, whom we adore in spite of, almost because of, their negative qualities.  In a more optimistic time, characters were good or bad, and clearly demarcated as such.

What we find is rather different.  With very few exceptions, Lois is presented as being silly, dishonest, dumb, heedless, hapless and obsessed with nailing Superman (while constantly expressing contempt for Clark Kent).  Moreover Superman’s attitude to her is that of a rather impatient father towards a badly-behaved daughter.  Whenever she gets into one of her scrapes, he doesn’t try to understand why she might have got there; he just extracts her, usually in such a way as to make it impossible for her to do whatever it was again, and generally humiliating her in order to ‘teach her a lesson’.

Thus in one episode, Lois obtains some special garments from Krypton that give the wearer superpowers, and she proceeds to charge off to do good.  Unfortunately, she’s a bit slapdash, so Superman has to follow her round as a kind of clean-up squad.  Now, he could have chosen to explain this to her, and school her in what it means to be a superhero, thus giving her the chance either to gain in experience, or else to give up of her own will.  Instead he plots to destroy the efficacy of the garments.  Lois can’t be educated into how to grow up; she must have the toy taken away from her and remain a child.

In another episode, Lois is so unhappy at the continuing failure of her campaign to get Superman to propose to her that she undergoes hypnosis to have memories of her love of him expunged from her mind.  When he learns of this, how do you think Superman reacts?  Why, he celebrates.  He bounces around his apartment crying ‘yippee!’ and being generally pleased as Punch that he no longer has to put up with her romantic attentions.  Lois is seen as a burden on Superman rather than as a potential lover, let along an equal.

What it seems to boil down to is this.  What we see is nothing surprising.  The negative take on Lois, and Superman’s dismissive attitude to her, are typical of 1950s views of women.  Given that the comics were written by men, this is no surprise.  What is a surprise, however, is that women chose to buy and read this stuff in sufficient numbers to keep it going for sixteen years.  Why would women want to read a comic that told them, repeatedly, that they were children, while men were the adults?

An answer

My answer to this seeming paradox is interesting, if depressing, as it shows very clearly how discrimination against one group can, in fact, be self-imposed, and the group themselves may connive (unconsciously) in its enforcement.

So, say I were an ordinary ’50s girl or woman (there are always exceptions, so this is an averaged out view).  My world would be pretty circumscribed.  If I wanted to work, the options were extremely limited, and society, particularly in the US, told me repeatedly that my prime purpose was to marry some man and then devote myself to looking after him and his children.  Society enforced very strongly the roles of women as children and men as adults.  So, obviously I need some source of escapism to prevent me from going mad.

This can take two forms.  The traditional form is that of the forbidden fruit fantasy sold by the romance comics: dreams of erotic pleasure in a environment where there was definitely no kitchen and absolutely no carpets needing cleaning.  However, there is an insidious form.  Look at Lois Lane.  She is Superman’s consort.  That, in a society where status comes from one’s man, places her pretty much at the top of the pyramid; given that Superman is basically a god (see Superheroes in Myth for more on this) then she is a near goddess.  But now, being as I am, a harried ’50s housewife, I read the adventures of this near goddess and discover that all the stuff that upsets me happens to her too.  She is pushed around by men who don’t take her seriously.  Her lover refuses to commit to her and treats her like an impediment.  What a relief.  For if Lois, who is far higher than me, has to put up with all that provocation, how can I hope not to?

In other words, a group that is discriminated against (in this case, women) can actually find comfort in tales of discrimination against powerful individual women, because it shows them that it’s not just them, there is no magic bullet that they have failed to notice, there are no exceptions.  And so they become accepting of their lot and cease to struggle, but continue to require this kind of negative escapism to remind them that the struggle would be futile.  And so the discriminated group becomes self-policing, and actually reinforces its own inferior status.

So that’s why it took until the wider acceptance of feminism in the early ’70s for this curious comic to fail.  Pressure had to come from outside.

Approaching ‘The Invisibles’


The Invisibles

Grant Morrison’s The Invisibles is a daunting prospect for anyone.  In its collected form it consists of three volumes made up of around fifteen hundred pages distributed across seven books, each page crammed with dense, allusive text and imagery.  And it certainly makes no concessions to readers: events in volume three often make sense only if one spots that they make direct allusions, either textual or visual, to things that happened in the earliest pages of volume one.  The story itself is often fragmentary, told in an elliptical fashion so that it only makes sense once one has read the whole mammoth book, and maybe not even then.  Reference forwards and backwards in time and in the structure of the narrative are commonplace.

For anyone intended to undertake an interpretation, the task is even more formidable.  Morrison draws on ideas from an unusually wide range of sources: conspiracy theories, philosophy, science fiction, theology (Western and Eastern), cosmology, linguistics and pop music vie in an almost incomprehensible mosaic of ideas that seem, almost on purpose, to not so much cohere as compete with one another.  Though Morrison devotes a fair amount of space in volumes one and three of The Invisibles to explaining his fictional cosmology, the description is bafflingly incomplete (not helped, in one critical part of volume three, by terrible art-work), and he seems to delight in adding layer after layer of additional ideas on to what seems by the end to be a philosophical equivalent to Gaudi’s insane architecture.

There have been attempts at interpreting The Invisibles as it if were a narrative with a definite underlying plot, goal and motives.  Most notable are the two books Anarchy for the Masses, which seems at times to be a deliberate act of disinformation, so full is it of information of dubious veracity, and Our Sentence is Up, which attempts a coherent explanation.  Likewise, writes in the online community at, claim to have established the meaning of The Invisibles.  But, due to the vast amount of heterogeneous material present in the text, these attempts are not convincing.

What I am proposing, therefore, and what this essay is the introduction to, is a different approach, not so much an attempt at interpretation, as an exploration of the philosophical ideas that are (I think) critical to an understanding of the text.  My aim is not to say what The Invisibles means, but to provide you, the reader, with insights and references that you can use in deciding what it means to you and how you can use it in your own personal development.

Open and closed narratives

It is my opinion that The Invisibles is what one could called an open text.  A closed text is pretty much what one might expect.  It is a text that is complete in itself, in which all the information presented fits neatly together in order to present one or more ideas, and when one has read it through to the end, one clearly understands where they come from and precisely what it is that the author wanted you to know.  So, for example, when reading a conventional novel, be it by P G Wodehouse or Jane Austen, by the time one has reached the end, everything is nearly tied together, there are no loose ends, and you know what you are meant to think.  An open text, on the other hand, has no such goal in mind.  Instead of telling you a story and what to think about it, it presents information, then leaves you to decide what to do with it.  In particular, as its goal is purely expository, there is no onus on it for the material it presents to cohere in any conventional way.  For example, To The Lighthouse and Finnegan’s Wake are entirely open, as, for that matter, is V for Vendetta, where Alan Moore makes some posits about political systems, but then sternly refrains from telling us what the answer is.  In a closed text the author does all the work for the reader; in an open text, the author sets the context and then leaves it up to the reader to work within it.

So, why is The Invisibles an open text?  At first sight it seems closed: it has a very clearly defined story, with well-defined heroes (King Mob, Lord Fanny, Ragged Robin, the Invisible College, Barbelith), villains (Sir Miles, Mr Quimper, the Outer Church, the Archons) and a progression through the conflict to the inevitable triumph of good and transcendence of this level of reality.  And yet that view fails to account for the strange loose structure of the book.  There are whole, not so much subplots as subthemes, collections of ideas that are discussed and returned to repeatedly but which seem at best tangential to the plot.

Thus, for example, Morrison devotes a large space (especially in volume three) to discussing the nature of language.  I will return to analyse what he has to say in a future essay, but for now the key thing is that though the notion of alien languages and special languages is used occasionally in the plot, mainly in the form of being used to create incantations that bind their hearer in some way, their importance to the story of the incredibles is entirely out of proportion to the significance Morrison attaches to them.  In other words, the information that he provides on the subject of langage is far more than would be needed in a simple closed text.  There are only two way to make sense of this.  One is to assert that Morrison is a bad writer, who has no idea how to structure a dramatic narrative, a claim I emphatically deny, as should anyone who has read any of his mainstream superhero books, or even the divinely crazed Doom Patrol.  The other that we need to know what he tells us about language not, indeed, to follow the plot of The Invisibles, but to take it further.  It is part of a toolkit of ideas that we need to make use of The Invisibles.

Again, though ostensibly the story is about as mindlessly bipolar as the grotesque rip-off of The Invisibles that is The Matrix,  with impossibly cool good guys against impossibly square bad guys, there’s a lot of very mysterious stuff in the plot that, frankly, doesn’t make sense in a closed text.  Ragged Robin’s time travelling is almost entirely unnecessary to the story of The Invisibles, and could be excised without materially affecting it.  Even more so could the material about Ragged Robin writing the story of The Invisibles and then writing herself into it.  Likewise, the 1920s sequence makes little sense if this is a closed text with a simple story.  And yet these are clearly important to the book as a whole, and serve to open up new perspectives and ideas (rather like Morrison’s Animal Man only more so) that help to shape thinking that builds on the framework of The Invisibles.

Moreover, in the final pages of volume three, Morrison opens up a whole new perspective on the the ostensible story, showing that what had seemed to be good and evil were merely part of something greater, and gives us a view behind and beyond the story as we have seen it that means we have to revisit everything we thought we knew about this universe and think it through afresh.  In view of this, the points raised above, and a multitude of other features, it is clear that The Invisibles cannot be a closed text.   It is more a puzzle-book or rag-bag like Tristram Shandy or Peacock’s ‘novel of ideas’ Headlong Hall, both of which invite the reader to join the writer in the act of creation.


By Morrison’s own admission, The Invisibles is not a novel or a story. It is a polemical philosophical essay which uses the form of the graphic novel to illustrate its point. The medium of the graphic novel is an innovation, but the use of dramatised narrative to illustrate and illuminate philosophical ideas places it in a venerable tradition going back at least as far as Plato. But as it is not, primarily, a story, but is a presentation of ideas, that presentation aided by fictional constructs, we cannot expect dramatic and narrative conventions to apply. The characters are not people, but embodiments of ideas, and so it is not surprising that they can don and relinquish personalities as easily as clothes. The world looks like ours, but it is an idealisation constructed for the pedagogical use, and so, just like Erewhon, Lilliput and Atlantis, it obeys precisely those laws that its creator needs it to obey so that it can best serve his instructional purpose, even if this results in what, in a fictional narrative, we might consider gross inconsistency.

So we cannot treat The Invisibles as fiction.  Moreover, as it is an open text, there is no point in trying to read it or analyse it as if it were an examination question to which there is a defined answer, and so standard methods for interpreting texts will not be adequate.  I cannot tell you what The Invisibles means, because it does not, by its nature, have one meaning.  It presents us with a collection of ideas that we are expected to think about.  In other words, rather than being a message to readers, it is a tool-kit that Morrison has assembled for us to use in our own strivings after enlightenment.

What this means is that the most we can hope for in a study of The Invisibles is to examine the collection of ideas that Morrison has assembled for us and to comment on them.  Thus, we can look for contradictions, or for further ideas that Morrison doesn’t explicitly mention, but which are related to ideas in The Invisibles and may help add further illumination.  Interpretation is replaced by analysis and exploration as a prolegomena to individual study, so an essay such as this becomes an enabler for the reader’s thought.

In more concrete terms, what I aim to do is to examine Morrison’s metaphysical theories: the ideas about cosmology and being that underlie The Invisibles (much of which turns out to hinge on issues in epistemology and ontology).  I then intend to explore how these relate to other ideas.  My plan is to start from the metaphysics that The Invisibles most obviously relates to, which is that of the late writings of Philip K Dick.  Having thus broadened the base of ideas, the natural next step is to Gnosticism, acknowledged by both Dick and Morrison as being a critical influence, and then from there on to the ancestor of them all: neoplatonism.  So, at the moment, I plan two pieces:

  1. Two paths to enlightenment; the metaphysics of Grant Morrison and Philip K Dick
  2. Barbelith, Valis, the one; neoplatonism in science fiction

Cutting heroines down to size


It’s time for another of my bemused visits to the DC Universe and, more specifically, the curious attitudes of some of its fans.  I have already written (at some length) about two characters: Power Girl and Harley Quinn.  When I wrote about them I noted that in both cases there was something anomalous, for Power Girl it was the weird objectification to which she is subjected, in spite of the fact that it does not fit at all well with her character, and for Harley Quinn it was the somewhat strange way that her numerous fans seem to prefer her to suffer a hopeless and pointless love rather than get on with her life.

Thinking about things a bit more, I realised that there is, in fact, a common theme underlying both cases, that is to say that the heroine needs to be cut down to size before her fans can identify with her.  And this, then, leads on to fascinating parallels with the progress (if that is the word) of the modern romantic comedy.

So here’s what I’m going to do.  I’ll start off with a quick summary of the relevant points regarding Power Girl and Harley Quinn – if you want to know more, read my essays about them.  Then I’ll put forward my theory as to why they are both inconvenienced by their fans.  And finally I’ll cast the net a bit wider, seeing just how prevalent the cutting-down-to-size phenomenon is.

Meet the ladies

Power Girl

Carefully ignoring a certain amount of confusion, it is safe to say that Power Girl is Kara Zor-L, Superman’s cousin from another universe.  She’s at least as strong and powerful as him (possibly more so), is immune to Kryptonium, and has a very strong character and powerful intelligence.  Not having spent her childhood among humans, she has little of Superman’s love of humanity, and it shows: she’s tough, stroppy and a natural leader.  She also has very large breasts and wears a costume that leaves no doubt about it.

That last bit looks rather out of place doesn’t it?  Yes.  Exactly.  That’s the problem.  The thing is, here we have a character who is a natural feminist icon – she’s immensely powerful and intelligent and doesn’t take crap from anyone – and yet she is regularly depicted in a way that makes it clear that what matters is not her intelligence or her leadership qualities, but her breasts.  She is objectified horribly, making it very hard to take her seriously as a character.  During the worst period of objectification (interestingly, when the artist drawing her was a woman) she was given silly plot lines, like what to do when a kid has found your secret identity and uses it to blackmail you to go to the comics store with him, so his friends will think he’s cool?  Fortunately, shortly before her recent unfortunate downgrade from superhero to trophy girlfriend, she did recover some of her dignity, but the image of her as a Playboy bunny who hits people lingers.

Harley Quinn

Harley Quinn is generally described as the Joker’s girlfriend, but things are a bit more complex than that.  She originated on Batman The Animated Series, but was so popular that she transitioned to the DC Universe proper, where she eventually acquired her own title.  As a result, she has two origin stories, one set out in TV-spinoff comic Mad Love, the other in the eponymous Harley Quinn comic.  We need to compare them.

Mad Love version

In this version, Harleen Quinzel  was a student who wanted a job as a psychiatrist at Arkham Asylum, so she could write a tell-all memoir and retire on the proceeds.  Not actually having the smarts to do this, she got what she wanted by sleeping with her tutors.  Having arrived at Arkham, she starts out as the Joker’s therapist, thinking he will tell her juicy secrets, but actually he seduces her, destroys her mind, and turns her into Harley Quinn, his crazed side-kick.

Harley now suffers from unending adoration of the Joker, while he is only really interested in her in so far as he can use her for his own ends.  Therefore she is subjected to endless humiliation, rejection and violence, but always, always comes back when he calls.  And there you have it: a woman with no future, with no special talents or abilities, who has got where she has by the good graces of men, whom she rewards with her body or her devotion.  Scarcely a good role model.

Comics version

Both versions agree that Harleen Quinzel was a psychiatrist, but they differ somewhat on the details.  Here, Harleen had no need for help: she is described as having a formidable intellect, and picked up the posting at Arkham by virtue of being brilliant.  When at Arkham she becomes the Joker’s therapist, but now she seduces him.  She tells him about the Harleen Quinzel = Harley Quinn pun, whereas in the Mad Love version, that is his idea, and she clearly makes the move on him.  She has already decided that she is Harley Quinn before she has even met him.

Why she does this is rather interesting.  When at university, she carried out a rather cruel psychological experiment, using her boyfriend as guinea-pig.  Unfortunately, he became so distraught that he committed suicide.  The affair was kept quiet, but Harleen concluded that life was, in fact, a cruel joke, and having done so, looked about for people with whom she could share this world-view.  The choice was obvious, so she set about doing what was needed to catch her prey.

So here we have a decisive, powerful woman who directs her own life.  She just happens to be somewhat deranged.  When the Joker becomes too much, she dumps him (with considerable violence) and sets out on her own, or (more usually) in partnership with Poison Ivy, with whom she starts to develop a proper relationship.  She eventually manages to rehabilitate herself and actually play a more or less positive role.  And she is also one of the few people who has more or less worked out who Batman is.  This Harley Quinn is no joke.

What’s with these people?

Harley Quinn

So, we have something a bit strange going on here.  The comics version of Harley Quinn is, modulo the whole psychopath thing, equally quite a good role model, in that, as I’ve said, she’s pretty formidable herself.  And yet of her legions of fans, the majority think that the comic book version is a travesty and prefer the dim bulb of Mad Love.  You only have to compare the smiles on the pictures of the two Harleys to see the difference.  Mad Love Harley wears a lovesick simper, gazing adoringly at her man.  Comic book Harley’s is the smile of a woman who is in charge, knows what she’s doing and is enjoying it.   To make what that means totally clear, then: the fans disdain a genius who chose her criminal life, and would rather be a woman whose only asset is that men will do her favours in return for sex, and who ends up controlled by an insane love.

This is a strange kind of role model for women, and that is the thing.  Once could understand men finding an easy lay who adores her man more attractive than a capable woman, but the fans we’re talking about are women.  Why would they prefer an easy lay over a genius?  What it seems to be all about is low expectations.  Being a dependent trophy girlfriend is easy: all you need is surgery and sufficiently elastic morals.  Rising to the top of your profession by sheer hard work is much harder.  So Mad Love Harley is more easily achievable.  But what are the rewards of being her?  Harley doesn’t seem to get any reward: her life is bleak in the extreme, used by the Joker when he needs her and thrown away (sometimes literally) when he doesn’t.  The only thing she gets out of it is the knowledge that she is in love, and her (dubious) belief that one day she and her love will be together.

When you look at it, that isn’t much of a goal, to be honest.  It seems strange to be prepared to live a life of self-abnegation and hurt just so you can have a man of your own.  And yet, this seems to be what it’s all about in contemporary woman-oriented romantic fiction.  For example, the horrendous Twilight saga preaches deeply regressive sexual politics on the grounds that the heroine may end up as  cipher, but she has a love that will ring down through the ages, and is joined with her love in ecstasy at last.  And somehow the fact that she has two attractive pseudo-men wanting her at the same time is meant to be sufficient achievement for any young woman.  And the same is true, as I have said elsewhere, of modern romantic comedies.  We repeatedly see the basic plot of successful single woman pretends she is happy, meets man, realises she hates her life and ends up choosing to become his plaything.  And again, as with Twilight, as with Mad Love Harley, it’s women who consume this regressive tosh, and so we must conclude that they seriously do think that romantic love is fulfillment in itself. Me, I’d rather be a top psychiatrist.

Power Girl

So, we can see that the strange preference for the dim Harley over the bright one is a matter of preferring to aim low, belonging to a culture that tells you to aim low, to not try to stretch yourself.  Before we consider that further, let’s look at Power Girl and her vast tracts of male fans (though she has her fair share of female followers too).  Power Girl should be a formidable figure and a feminist role model.  Instead she’s a bit of a joke, butt of endless bad breast jokes.  Well, this seems to be the opposite side of the phenomenon we’ve just discussed.  Women want to be airheaded bimbos because that’s what men like, and men like airheaded bimbos because they’re frightened that a real woman would threaten their quaintly antiquated notions of masculinity.  And, of course, the fact that the women they interact with behave like airheaded bimbos reinforces those notions of masulinity, so we have a rather nasty feedback loop going on.

Now, a woman like Power Girl is a terrible threat to a man who thinks that the act of possessing testicles is somehow in and of itself a major achievement.  She’s smarter than him, tougher than him, stronger than him and can wither him with a stare without even having to resort to her laser beam eyes.  Clearly that is an affront to the dignity of men everywhere, so the only way a woman like that can be allowed to continue is if she is cut down in size, reduced from something frightening to something a man can relate to in a way that makes his superiority absolute.  And, well, sex is how you do that, isn’t it, for no woman can resist any real man, of course.  And so Kara’s increasingly grotesque hypertrophy is a way of indicating that she may be frighteningly capable, and more or less a goddess, but basically she’s sexually available, and hence conquerable really.  And this reaches its insane conclusion in her latest transformation, from Power Girl to trophy girlfriend of Mr Terrific, being cast as the nasty blonde whom the nice girl puts right in a speech of staggering ineptitude: ‘I am a black woman, made to be able to do things you can’t even imagine…’ Presumably Kara is too polite to reply ‘Fancy; I’m a Kryptonian,’ or else, as would be more characteristic, just throw the silly girl through the wall.

The bigger picture

In a series of pieces starting with The Tyranny of Realism, I attempted to understand why it was that, despite vastly greater capability and resources being available to their makers, modern films are almost uniformly less interesting than those made in the past.  In fact, there almost seems to be an inverse relationship between the capability of visual effects and the imagination with which they are put to use.  The conclusion was essentially that audiences are less willing to work than they used to be.  They don’t want to have to use their imaginations or think or be challenged; they just want a simple adrenaline surge.  So modern films are about simple stuff like explosions and things hitting other things and more explosions and sex and even more explosions.  Looking at the wider culture, this seems to apply elsewhere: effort is out, spoon-feeding is in.  Homer Simpson started out as a satirical figure; now he is a role model.

And, unfortunately, the same applies here.  As I said above, any woman can aspire to be Mad Love Harley if she diets enough and knows how to fake an orgasm.  The life of comic book Harley may be much more interesting an rewarding, but she has to do hard stuff like work and lead a gang and so on and so forth, while Mad Love Harley just does what her man tells her.  And, for the men, though Power Girl would be a great woman to aspire to be the partner of, she wouldn’t be entirely likely to tolerate her partner being a slacker who spends all his free time in a bar or in front of the TV.  So, naturally she is reduced from a woman to a pair of breasts, turned into something safe and easy to relate to, because relating to breasts doesn’t require any effort, and have no annoying personality.  And now she isn’t even Power Girl, she’s Karen Starr, and is just some man’s toy.  She has been utterly neutralised.  And what has happened to Harley Quinn is unspeakable.

So, in conclusion, I think we have to say that though it is now possible to understand why these two women of power are so misrepresented, and how that fits in with the culture they inhabit.  But, while that culture would say that we should just accept it and not strive for anything better, I think we should.  Write fanfic where Power Girl is elected as President of the United States.  Create websites celebrating the real Harley Quinn.  Stand up for women, even if they don’t want to be stood up for.

Grant Morrison’s ‘The Filth’


If you are anything like me, and you have read Grant Morrison’s great work The Filth, then it is likely that you were, at first reading, somewhat bemused.  Morrison doesn’t exactly make it easy to understand what he’s writing about, given his complex, allusive and highly fragmentary style, and you can see here, my first, puzzled, attempt at an understanding.  And, given that The Filth compresses into one 13-issue graphic novel what it previously took Morrison all of The Invisibles and most of his run on Animal Man to express, it’s a given that it’s extremely dense.  But the problem is, even if you’re used to reading Morrison’s works, The Filth is still hard to understand, because of the sheer complexity of the ideas that it is based on, and if you, as a reader, aren’t aware of the basis on which The Filth stands as superstructure, the chance is that you’ll still be bemused after four or five readings.

Well, this is my attempt to save you all that bother.  Now I don’t say that the interpretation I’m about to unfold is what Morrison had in mind.  For all I know he may hate Neoplatonism.  But I think I now have sufficient understanding of where he is coming from to be able to give a coherent and consistent view of what The Filth is about, that isn’t too far from what Morrison intended.  I can even indicate the way in which (showing, by the way, that this is a true masterpiece we’re talking about here) it is possible to draw conclusions from the piece that are utterly at variance with one another, and most likely with the author’s intentions.

So, here we go.  Oh yes, and a warning: by its nature this piece is full of spoilers, so if you don’t want to know what happens, look away now!  On the other hand, The Filth is probably immune to spoilers.


What happens in The Filth

Now, I am not going to attempt a plot summary.  That is probably impossible, and given the complexity of Morrison’s narrative style, it would not be very helpful even if I could do it.  What I am going to do is to attempt to describe the ideas in The Filth in the sense that I will describe the main groups of characters and summarise where they are coming from and why they do what they do.  There are three main groups of characters, so let’s meet them.

The Hand

The Hand is a kind of super police force with international remit, rather like a much scarier version of Interpol.  At first sight they are rather like Scotland Yard or the FBI: they get called in not when cases are too complex for the local forces to handle, but when they’re too weird.  So one could see them as a hugely expanded version of Agents Sculley and Mulder, only they don’t need to want to believe, they know.

But then, hidden behind this ‘Interpol of the weird’ facade, there’s something a bit more complex.  Their primary concern is not so much with solving strange and unusual crimes as in taking pre-emptive action to maintain the state of ‘Status-Q’, in other words, their job is to maintain the status quo, not in the political sense (they clearly care nothing for Kings or Presidents) but in the sense of keeping reality more or less as it is, and preventing those, whom they call anti-persons, who are in some way a threat to the basic way things are.  So antipersons can range from maniacs who wish to return global society to a state of primal chaos, to men who act as a kind of sexual black hole.  So in this form, they can be seen as the ultimate police force, the force which protects reality from those who wish to damage it.

The Hand

But behind this is something even stranger.  They call themselves the Hand for several reasons, one of which is that their headquarters are built around a giant artifact which represents a human hand holding a fountain pen, an artifact that it is clear predates humanity, and possibly even the planet.  And from the nib of the pen flows a mysterious substance called simply the Ink which, we are told, ‘makes things happen’.  And it is this substance and its source that the Hand guard and manage.  So they are much more than the guardians of Status-Q; they guard the very source of Status-Q.

And finally there is a mysterious activity which involves managing the ‘paperverse’, the universe of comic books.  Under the direction of an exile from the paperverse, the Hand ‘run’ scripts within the paperverse and then, with great risk, venture within it for a number of reasons, not all of which are very clear, but definitely including mining it for advanced technology.

It’s also necessary to explain the rather confusing status of agents of the Hand.  Agents are ‘parapersonae’ who exist as little tubes of chemicals held in special pharmacies around the world.  When the Hand wants to activate a particular agent, they locate a suitable ‘host’, that is to say, a human being who has the physical and mental qualities required for an agent of the Hand, and then apply the parapersona to it (we are never told how), at which point the parapersona takes over the body, whose original owner is never seen again unless, for some reason, the agent decides to temporarily relinquish control, and when the host body dies, the agent passes to a new host.  Thus our hero is both Greg Feely (a solitary masturbator who has a passionate devotion to his cat) and Ned Slade (a top agent of the Hand).

The rebels

The rebels are a motley collection of individuals, mostly life’s rejects, who have decided that they don’t much like Status-Q.  Having learned (somehow) about the Hand, they wish to infiltrate it, smash it and smash with it Status-Q.  They hope to replace it with a kind of egalitarian chaos (under their benign leadership, of course).

Greg Feely (the bald one)

We only meet a few of the rebels, and fewer are important.  First and foremost, Greg Feely, when he is being Greg Feely, is the one of them selected to infiltrate the Hand.  So we are left to assume that he did whatever was required to be recruited as a host and then, as a result of a ‘parapersona crash’ which allows Greg to reassert himself so both personalities end up existing concurrently, he ends up recovering his memories of his place in the rebellion and so launches a one-man effort to tear down Status-Q.

Max Thunderstone is the leader of the rebel group.  He started out as a solitary conspiracy theorist who gathered about himself (in a virtual sense, it is clear that all communication was via the internet, and it is only very near the end of the book that Greg / Ned finally meets Max)  a small group of like-minded marginalised individuals who, somehow, learned of the secret of the existence of the Hand and their relationship to Status-Q.  While Greg went to learn exactly what it was that the Hand did, Max decided to turn himself into the first real superhero, so he could act as a nexus for the popular uprising against Status-Q that he was sure would arise once the truth was widely known.

Finally, Sharon Jones is a lawyer who permitted Max to have parts of her body surgically replaced with sensors (e.g. a camera for an eye) and to remotely take control of her brain.  There is a definite suggestion that at some point in the past she and Greg have had some form of relationship: Greg knows her personally as well as virtually.  Sharon manages (with a certain amount of unwitting help from Ned Slade) to release a nanotechnology called iLife into the world at large; Greg looks after some of it in his house.  By the end of the book, iLife has evolved to the point where it has (it appears) become a new branch of the Hand intent on healing people physically and (maybe) psychologically.

The anti-persons

We meet a random selection of anti-persons in the course of the book, most of them arising from cases that Ned Slade is involved in investigating.  They are incredibly diverse: a terrorist parapersona who in one incarnation wants to destroy the world with iLife, in another tries to undermine the fabric of civilisation by making people revert to a pre-human state; a pseudo-human construct in the form of a man with phenomenal procreative capabilities who seems set to become (almost literally) father of the human race; a maniac porn-merchant who wants to turn the whole world into his very own blue movie; and so on.

Their common feature is very simple.  All threaten to subvert not the state (as I said, the Hand doesn’t seem to have any interest in politics or government, having far bigger fish to fry) but status-Q: the smooth and efficient functioning of reality.  And that is why they come to the attention of the hand and are labelled as anti-persons, and why Ned Slade is sent in to delete them.

Some Neoplatonic philosophy

Now, in a wild shift, I’m going to introduce some of the philosophical tools I’ll need to analyse The Filth, specifically ideas from the philosophical movement of Neoplatonism, which flourished in the first four centuries of the current era, rose to importance again with the Christian mystics of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, and has become popular again in the last few decades.  I will describe the bare essentials needed for my argument.  Those interested in learning more are referred to the excellent expository book by Pauliine Remes.

God: the Unity

We start from the Neoplatonic conception of God.  This is not a God that would be familiar to most modern believers in pretty well any religion.  Rather than being a super-powerful individual figure (rather like a superhero – for more on this connection see my piece Superheroes in Myth) the Neoplatonic God is the Unity, a concept without features or distinctive properties.  The reason for this is as follows: God is viewed as being the totality of being and an absolute unity.  If God had any distinguishing property, then the fact that the property is distinguishing means that there is something it can distinguish God from, which means that God is not the totality of being: in Eckhart‘s terminology, it is pure isness.

We can go further.  Some pantheists argue that ‘God is everything’.  But if God is everything, what is nothing?  Nothingness itself is therefore outside of God, which is impossible.  Therefore God is both everything and nothing.  Paradoxes like this are rather common in Neoplatonism (and Christian mysticism) and are indicative of attempts to apprehend and describe in human language that which is beyond our limited comprehension.  Obviously we cannot apprehend God, so any description we can formulate must be faulty.  To use philosophical terminology, there is an epistemic barrier between us and God which means that we can never fully apprehend God and can see only fragments of its being.

The hierarchy

This leads on to the Neoplatonic doctrine of hierarchy.  All flows from God, but reality is organised into layers separated by epistemic barriers, so what seems one and simple on one side of the barrier seems many and complex on the other.  You can imagine this as a game of Chinese Whispers, where a single word becomes distorted to become a complete sentence after it has passed through several speakers.  At the lowest level of the hierarchy is the sensible realm, otherwise known as the physical world.  Thus everything in the physical world is a dim shadow of the perfect unity of God, and traces back to God, but it is very hard to read the nature of God in its contents.

The Demiurge

The physical world poses a problem for the Neoplatonists, for if God and the intelligible realm (the non-physical layers of reality) are perfect (which they are), why is the physical world, which derives from them, imperfect?  This provoked any number of theories, but the one relevant to The Filth is the one that introduces the concept of the Demiurge.  Essentially, the Demiurge is an entity restricted to the sensible realm that has the capability to create material things from the emanations of the intelligible realm, so it is, in a sense, a very imperfect god.  Because it is imperfect and because it cannot directly apprehend the perfect forms of the intelligible realm, what it makes is imperfect.  So it takes pure isness (in as far as it can find it) and uses it to make the world as it is in as good an image as it can make of the intelligible realm.

Interpreting The Filth

The obvious place to start trying to understand The Filth is not with Greg / Ned but with its real central character: the Hand.  Specifically the physical Hand, the mysterious artifact that produces the Ink that ‘makes things happen’.  The Ink  makes things happen, but seems to be entirely non-specific about what those things are; the people that make up the organisation of the Hand get to decide how it is used.  Remember that in Neoplatonism God is undifferentiated and without properties, so it seems that the Ink is the pure isness that makes up God, or, in other words, it is a projection of the realm of the intelligible into the sensible.

If the Ink is God, or at least, God in so far as anyone in our world can see it, then the people of the Hand, as those who manage and sustain the world, controlling access to the Ink and using it to maintain Status-Q, must be the Demiurge.  This makes quite a lot of sense of the Hand’s various activities.

Managing the Ink

This is fairly simple to understand: the Ink is the way for those of us in the sensible realm to access the intelligible realm and obtain the power of creation.  Obviously, any Demiurge, committed to their vision of how Status-Q should be, would want to control access to the Ink and then decide how it should be used.  Letting just anyone use it could lead to chaos, which neatly leads on to the next point.

Maintaining Status-Q

Maintaining Status-Q by seeking out and destroying anti-persons is an obvious part of the function of the Demiurge, as the creator of the physical world maintains it in what they think is the image of God.  The anti-persons we meet vary from those who wish to destroy order, via those who simply do destroy order, to those (Thunderstone and his group) who want to get hold of the Ink for themselves.  The first two are a clear threat.  It is important to remember that the Demiurge is not evil, it is flawed. The Demiurge tries its hardest to make a perfect world, so things that are a threat to such order as it has been able to create threaten what it sees as being the reflection of the Divine within the world.  The third is a greater threat, because they have pretensions to being another Demiurge with a different vision of the Divine.  But, as far as the Demiurge is concerned, its version of perfection is the closest one can get to divinity in the physical world, and so the counter-Demiurge must be the opposite of Divine.

This is the critical point of this section.  To an existing Demiurge, any competitor must be a thing of evil, because they want to overturn the Status-Q that is, as far as the Demiurge is concerned, the best possible mirror of the perfection of God.  So, in the context of The Filth that means that to the Hand, Thunderstone and his group are evil, because they stand against Status-Q.  But we can apply this the other way round: Thunderstone is a competing Demiurge, so to him the Hand is evil, because Status-Q differs from his vision of how reality should be.  In other words, the Hand and Thunderstone are locked in eternal and necessary conflict.  In fact, if somehow Thunderstone managed to overpower the Hand and take over then, though Status-Q would change, he and his new group would look just like the Hand do now, with the same concerns and activities, and the Hand would look just like him and his group.  Greg would soon be doing Ned’s old job.

Due to this symmetry, one cannot say that one group is right and the other wrong.  They have differing visions of God, but it is impossible to say who is right precisely because, by virtue of the epistemic barrier(s) between us and God, both visions of what Status-Q should be are flawed and we have no way of knowing how accurate or otherwise either is, because to do that we would have to know something about the true nature of God, which we cannot.   Therefore The Filth cannot be seen as a simple good guys vs bad guys argument.  It is simply a conflict between two equally invalid world-views.

The Paperverse

This is where the Hand’s activities get interesting, in that they are attempting to go beyond being a Demiurge and to become, in their own small way, the God of another universe – the Paperverse – which is, as one would expect, separated from ours by an epistemic barrier.  By constructing plots and then ‘running’ them in the Paperverse they are, essentially, creating the image of the divine that the Paperverse sees.  So we see the beginnings of a hierarchy in that the lowest tier of our universe becomes the God of another universe.  And, given that it can hardly be coincidence that the intelligible realm manifests itself to us as a giant han holding a pen, it is entirely reasonable to assume that there are layers of universes above us.  So in Morrison’s hands, the crystalline tiered model of the Neoplatonists, with its static, perfect levels of abstraction, becomes a living, noisy chaos, with each level vibrantly alive and arguing (and even fighting) about how best to represent the will of the level above, and what to feed down to the level below.

The Strange Case of Harley Quinn


Harley Quinn


Harley Quinn, a relatively minor figure in the pantheon of DC Comics’ universe, provokes enthusiasm, no, adoration, hugely out of proportion to her apparent importance. I suspect part of this is that though she may not have the oomph factor of some bad girls, she has an enormous, larger than life, vivacity. She clearly enjoys her life immensely (well, most of the time) and that joy communicates itself to the reader. So though Poison Ivy may be your fantasy figure of choice, Harley would have to be the number one candidate for a girl friend to have fun times with.

Suicide Squad


All of which makes it perfectly incomprehensible that DC Comics, in their wisdom, chose to ‘reboot’ her in a deeply regressive way. So instead of a gorgeous, funny, sad, wildly unpredictable and larger than life goddess, she becomes the modern-day cliche of the barely clad babe with attitude, heroine of more bad action movies than one cares to think of. Unsurprisingly, this has somewhat annoyed her fans, but it also begs an interesting question, that is: why would DC Comics think that a generic nearly naked skank was more likely to shift comics than a well-rounded character with an adoring fan-base? So that’s one of my questions.

My next question is related. It would appear that fans have been discontented for a while over the kind of story Harley has been involved in. Though she started out as the Joker’s side-kick, of late she has moved away from him, shifting to a complex will-they, won’t-they relationship with Poison Ivy, which only seemed to resolve itself just before the ‘reboot’. Now, given that Harley’s relationship with the Joker was that of an abused woman, with him humiliating, abusing and occasionally trying to kill her and her escaping briefly only to return, because she was sure he loved her really, why would anyone want to reunite them? Surely her fans should be glad that she has found a stable, loving relationship at last? So that is my second question: given how bad the Joker was for Harley, why would a ‘fan’ want to see her return to him?

Harleen Quinzel

She started it

But before answering those questions, I want to look at another. This has been bothering me for some while. It is usually stated that Dr Harleen Quinzel was the Joker’s therapist, that he subverted her therapy to seduce her and then drove her insane, Harley Quinn being the result. This is the ‘orthodox’ view, though it hasn’t gained total acceptance and, indeed, is not followed in Harley’s self-titled series. So we are meant to believe that Harleen Quinzel, the brilliant, near-genius psychiatrist, was blasted away by the Joker’s seduction, and what was left behind was a volatile mad-woman almost as dangerous as the Joker himself. For any number of reasons, I don’t think this is very plausible, so I shall start, in the next section, by attempting to analyse Harley, to see what might really be going on.

About Harley

Some facts

Let’s start the analysis of Harley’s psychopathology by examining some of the facts about her. What one might call the two most obvious can be expressed by saying that she acts like a lovable moron who has a propensity to extreme violence. This is true in as far as it goes; the mistake lies in thinking that because she acts like a moron therefore she is a moron. Because the interesting thing about Harley is that she is a creature of layers. On the surface there is the lovable moron, who is always cheerful, spends her days watching cartoons and has a distinctly childish world-view. Every now and then the mask slips and we see a desperately sad woman underneath. And below her there lurks a woman with a powerful logical mind who surfaces occasionally, makes a few observations and then retreats. So any attempt at understanding Harley has to deal with this almost hidden structure which gives her considerable psychological depth.

Moving on to the second point, Harley does have a distinct propensity for violence, indeed considerably volatility of mood. She more or less specialises in not using the minimal force required to get the job done, but in massive overkill, the goal seemingly being not so much an effective operation as the maximum of theatrical effect. In other words, the violence, which is often comical, and carried out with a knowing, cheeky eye on her audience, is part of the general tendency of all Harley’s actions to be much larger than life. She doesn’t just want to get the job done; she wants to get it done with style and in a way that will not so much impress as give pleasure to those who happen to be watching. So, when she needs to leave her gang to do something private, she doesn’t go through the door: she drops straight down the front of a skyscraper. There is a look of pure pleasure on her face when the Riddler threatens to fight her with a sword. And she always, always delivers the appropriate snappy one-liner before thumping her adversary. She knows the role she’s playing and she loves playing it.

As for Harley’s relationships, her record is not good. Her relationship with the Joker is classically abusive. She loves him, he gives her encouragement, then humiliates her, hurts her and even tries to kill her. She leaves, but can’t stay away, returning convinced that he’s reformed this time, and so on. And so we get into the cycle that can only end in intervention or disaster. What does not help is that, on the whole, her friends tend to perpetuate the abusive pattern. Poison Ivy and Catwoman both treat her as if she is a moron, and so incapable of making decisions or saying anything remotely helpful, often resulting in their own discomfiture because they wouldn’t listen to her. And so, once again, we get a cycle of negative reinforcement: treating Harley as if she is a small child leads to her withdrawing further into childish, dependent behaviour, which reinforces their impression that she is a child, and so on and so forth. It is not a happy state to be in.

Some thoughts

Let’s start with the standard view. This can be basically summed up as being that Harley actually is (and not merely seems to be) a lovable moron who is a psychopath, is utterly dependent on the Joker and behaves like a child because that is what she is. So, as I said above, Harleen Quinzel and any adult aspects of her personality have been entirely erased, leaving nothing behind but an emotionally dependent lunatic. This does not stand up to careful thought. If Harley is actually little more than a psychopathic child, what are the deeper layers of personality that peep out from time to time? Given that the deepest layer is clearly extremely intelligent and has formidable psychological acumen, I would suggest that far from having been erased, Harleen Quinzel is still there, hidden under layers of childishness and dependency, and is perfectly capable of being her old self when she wants to. So the obvious question is, then, why did she choose to retreat from the world?

All the emotional support she needs

I am going to argue that in fact, far from having retreated, Harleen is quietly orchestrating much of Harley’s behaviour from behind the scenes. It is just that the way she chooses to arrange things creates the impression that she has been replaced by a childish, needy psychotic. The real change in her is that she has chosen not to engage with the world on its terms any more, but only on her own. Remember that Harleen Quinzel was of exceptional intelligence, and she was also a first rate gymnast (something Harley clearly has inherited from her). Now exceptional intelligence and ability are all very well, but they have a well-known and very debilitating negative aspect: that is to say, if nothing you do is particularly challenging then it’s easy to get bored and frustrated and drift into depression, destructiveness or worse. Especially if, as we know is the case with Harleen, you have little in the way of emotional support from friends and family.

Now, to a mind that was already in the process of this retreat from reality having discovered that no matter how hard she looked, she couldn’t find worthy peers or anything that was remotely challenging, the Joker would have been a wonderful discovery. His psychoses would be a challenge worthy of her, and sufficient to spur her interest in him. So, I think it’s fair to say not so much that he seduced her away from the straight and narrow as that she was only too willing to leave it, and he merely showed her the way. Especially as it would be very natural for her to question whether, as the world of the legitimate psychiatrist left her parched and dying, it might not be worth seeing if she could finally find what she wanted by turning to crime. So Harleen did not lose her mind and in the process become Harley; rather Harley is a persona deliberately adopted by Harleen for her new role as mistress of crime.

The ticket to her dreams

Of course, it didn’t turn out as she expected; the Joker was even more psychotic than she had thought and so she ended up not as a partner in crime but as a despised hanger-on. Admittedly, even in that role she does her best, being supremely effective at what she does. Indeed, the very larger than life quality that characterises Harley’s every action can be seen as just another example of the over-achiever’s curse: she can’t just do the job, she has do do it in a way that’s deliberately difficult and extremely showy, just to prove to herself how good she really is. This also explains her often rather bizarre choice of target for her crimes: often it obeys a very strict inner logic, known only to Harleen, but it makes no sense in terms of the world that Harley inhabits. She doesn’t see that as a problem, as this is all about seeking stimulation and reward, but her colleagues in crime see it as further evidence that she is nuts. Which helps ensure that she remains at best a minor player. It turns out that the only thing she has that can guarantee a challenge is her relationship with the Joker, so she depends on him for stimulation and easily falls into the cycle of abuse. She does not love the Joker at all; she is dependent on him, or has grown to believe she is, and therefore behaves in like a needy woman in love, but there is no genuine feeling for him. Their relationship is one of mutual exploitation.

Her knight in greenish armour

Things don’t get much better when she does manage to tear herself away from the Joker. Her relationship with Poison Ivy could be her saviour. Unfortunately, though it is fairly clear that Ivy does love Harley, she is too far set in her own conceit of hating all humans to actually be able to admit it until almost the last possible moment. Also, she seems to take the rather ditzy exterior at face value and doesn’t realise that it’s the consequence of an extremely intelligent woman finding herself caught, like a rat in a trap, with no way out save irresponsibility. Thus Harley is treated as a hanger-on. Is it not a surprise that she sinks further into childishness, as her mind begins to close itself off from the world, or that she makes one last, desperate attempt to rekindle her connection with the Joker, the one source of stimulation she thought she knew.

Unfortunately, we will now never know what happens next with Harley and Ivy, whether they do sort things out and develop a proper loving relationship, and Harley begins to get the emotional support required to emerge from her inner exile, or whether things just carry on as before. The outlook, it has to be said, is not good.

About Harley’s fans

Why would anyone want her to go back to the Joker?

Wile E Coyote speaks out

As I said in the introduction, prior to DC’s big ‘reboot’ many of Harley’s fans were agitating for her to return to the Joker, apparently viewing her striking out on her own followed by her partnership with Poison Ivy as being something of an aberration. I find this mysterious. Or rather, I can understand this attitude only if one views Harley purely as an intellectual construct, a piece of fictive property, to be put through hoops for one’s amusement. In this case, it doesn’t matter that Harley is apparently hurt and humiliated, because she isn’t real, and she exists only to amuse by her pratfalls in pursuit of her puddin’. Like Wile E Coyote , she will always spring back into shape.


There is an interesting story written by an Italian Communist leader who was invited to attend one of Stalin’s private cinema screenings. He commented that Stalin got very involved in the film and talked to the characters as if they were real people. He then made the sniffy comment that this proved that Stalin was of lesser intellect, because only a clod would actually treat fictional characters as though they were real. This view became very modish in modern fiction and literary criticism, the fad being to discuss the author’s writerly constructs rather than what it was they had written about. And yet, as the plethora of ironic, writerly and completely unreadable novels of this school shows, a purely artificial work of fiction does not live for its reader. Criticism also became obsessed with form as opposed to content, as witness Umberto Eco’s famous essay on Superman, in which he appears to argue that Superman is defective as mythic archetype because the stories unfold in the present tense. Admittedly, it is hard to see how a picture-based medium could do anything but unfold in the present, but apparently that observation is too simplistic, and so Eco builds a massive edifice on this entirely meta-textual observation. He then goes on to bolster his credibility by asserting that there is no need for him to discuss any other comic-book characters, because they are all the same.

Contrary to these ‘intellectuals’, Stalin’s empathy with the movie’s characters was the proper form of reaction to fiction. If, say, Harley were a purely intellectual construct, intended, like Wile E Coyote, to amuse, but no more, what is there that makes her any more memorable than any other such construct? Moreover, can she be said to have any individuality at all? Surely the constructs named ‘Harley Quinn’ in different stories are independent because they exist in independent narratives, and so the concept of ‘Harley Quinn’ becomes meaningless. Thus fiction would be reduced to pure formal games, with no actual meaning. To deny, as do Eco and his ilk, meaning in fiction, in the face of authors’ indignant rejection of that denial, is the height of arrogance and evidence of academics forgetting that their job is to study and not dictate. Now, Harley Quinn exists as an identifiable character, not just in her appearance, but in her personality and behaviour. Though different writers inevitably give a different slant on her, there is an identifiable commonalty that can only exist if there is actually some meaning, some concept of ‘Harley Quinn’ distinct from the marks on paper. And that is why I can discuss her psychology, and so many people can love her and want to emulate her. To view her as purely a fictional thing to make one laugh is a possible interpretation, but it is fundamentally misguided and contrary to the very nature of fiction itself.

Not good

However, if one views Harley as a person (albeit a fictional one) it is hard to see how one can think it better that she return to a highly abusive relationship with someone who is very likely to kill her in preference to a relationship with someone who actually appears to love her. With the exception of one rather gruesome possibility. To a certain mindset, Harley’s ‘mad love’ for the Joker might be seen as being terribly romantic in a way that her more sane feelings for Ivy are not. That is to say, simply by virtue of being unreciprocated and hopeless, it acquires a patina of desperate wish-fulfilment common in bad literature from Jane Eyre to Twilight. In other words, fans who themselves have thwarted romantic longings (and who does not in the full flush of youth?) want her to suffer with them, on their behalf, so they have, as it were, a role-model or proxy. Harley happy with Ivy is of no use to them, as though she may be what they aspire to be, they cannot see any way of actually achieving that state, and her having achieved it is, in fact, a threat (even regardless of the fact that US culture is still regrettably homophobic, and so a loving relationship between two women is likely to be seen as transgressive), because Harley with Ivy is telling them that they could be like her, and not full of thwarted desire, and hence creates feelings of inadequacy. Much better, therefore, to stick with unrealistic romanticism and demand that Harley do likewise.

Why the new look?


It is understandable that when one is updating all one’s product lines one wants to make changes. What is not understandable is why, when one has a product, like Harley, that is incredibly successful as it is, one would decide to change it almost beyond recognition. And yet that is precisely what DC Comics have done with the new Harley Quinn, featured in Suicide Squad. So is this an outbreak of corporate insanity, along the lines of ‘new Coke’ (remember that?), or is there actually any form of logic to this change?

There are any number of things that have been lost in this change: the beauty, the charm, the humour, the quality of being lovable. What has been gained seems to boil down to two things, both regrettable, but both terribly popular right now: she looks ‘edgy’, and she is wearing considerably fewer clothes than she used to. Now, ‘edgy’ is one of those qualities that are terribly popular, apparently extremely desirable, and yet strangely hard to define. It seems almost to fill the same space that ‘grunge’ did about a decade ago, as the ultimate in socially approved counter-culture (think about it). In as far as it means anything, it seems to involve deliberately not doing a proper job of whatever you’re at and then claiming that the defects make your work somehow more authentic. So the fact that New Harley’s costume is grotesquely ill-suited to a fighting woman is not important and to think about such things is to miss the point: what matters is the look. In other words, what we have here is the old-fashioned cult of amateurism beloved of bad artists the world over. There are quite enough bad comics as it is; why do DC feel the need to give us more?

What hath they wrought?

The second point is even less forgivable. We supposedly live in a post-feminist age. Apparently, or so we are told, all the battles for equality have been won, and there is no need for feminism any more. Women can be comfortable with femininity again. And yet women in movies are relegated to being scantily clad onlookers or neoprene clad babes, one major studio has announced that its policy is to make no movie with a female principal character, and Power Girl has been downgraded from one of the mightiest of superheroes to a trophy girlfriend. And as a part of DC’s ‘reboot’ Harley, whose costume was eminently practical for an athletic criminal, and exposed precisely nothing (while leaving no doubt as to just how shapely she was) has been replaced by New Harley, who simultaneously is less attractive, but shows off a lot more. And this, remember, is part of a move on DC’s part to try to attract younger readers. In other words, they believe that younger readers prefer their women objectified. Which may be true, but succumbing to such a demand is a dreadful state of affairs for a company like DC with a proud history of campaigning for liberal political issues.


I had hoped to end this piece with an interview with its subject. Unfortunately, Dr Quinzel’s busy schedule made it impossible for us to catch more than a few moments to speak to one another. She did, however, recommend this extract from the diaries of Dr Arkham, which she said she hoped would be amusing and instructive. Attempts to contact Dr Quinzel’s partner, Dr Pamela Isley, failed. However, I did receive an unmarked package containing a plant which, when watered, proceeded to eat my dog, the postman and seventeen pigeons, and staunchly repelled my attempts to expel it from the house. I took this as a gentle hint and ceased my efforts.

The DC Universe and the American Psyche


The other day I was reading one of the seemingly endless supply of pieces in which commentators are sharing their thoughts about it being ten years since the attacks on New York City and Washington DC.  This was more interesting than most, in that it attempted to look at cultural aspects of what has happened over that past ten years rather than simply to ring the changes on the tired old themes of the War on Terror and Al Qaida.  Its basic thesis was that an early outbreak of aggressively Manichean entertainment, such as the inexplicably popular 24, where anything the good did against the bad was justified, had been replaced by a more nuanced world where there were shades of grey and so on and so forth.  To be honest, I, as should anyone who has been following the strange process whereby the Republican Party endeavours to find a candidate even less popular than President Obama, have doubts about this.  It seems that the idea of American Exceptionalism, and thus that the US (the good) can do no wrong is stronger than ever.

There is, however, one cultural shift that I do think is interesting and worth looking at.  It is the, one might say foolhardy, decision by DC Comics to ditch their entire Universe, a mythology as rich and complete as any of those of Greece or Rome, and, in the fashionable parlance, reboot it in the hope of making it more ‘relevant’.  I do not intend to discuss the artistic merits of this, but I think that the changes in attitude and character that have happened as a result are strongly indicative of an America that is no longer brave and outgoing, but rather is fearful of the strange and wishes to retreat from the world, locking the doors behind it.  We see this in the strangely diminished characters of the great heroes and even the villains, and in the fact that there are no longer the beacons of truth, justice and the American way for us to aspire to.  Twilight has come to America and with it we have newer, smaller superheroes for our own time.

The republic of fear

The past

The DC Comics Universe as it was up until the end of last month was, in many ways, quite a dark place.  Terrifying monsters and natural disasters abounded, not to mention menacing aliens and even more menacing supernatural entities often bent on the complete annihilation of absolutely everything as only the first stage in their plans.  And even on a purely Earthbound level, a whole new class of criminal, the supervillain, existed, so numerous that they formed their own societies and leagues in parody of their opposite numbers in superhero-land.  And these supervillains were not just like ordinary, career criminals: they included psychotics so insane that the whole world became a player in their grand plan of not mere robbery or mayhem, but universal madness, individuals convinced that it was their destiny to rule and therefore determined to destroy anything that stood in their way of so doing, other individuals suffering the delusional belief that all animal life was an aberration of nature and should be annihilated, and so on.  In fact it’s surprising that the good people of Metropolis and Gotham ever dared step outside.

Bringing him down to Earth

And yet step outside they did, because they knew that they had protectors.  The universe was not entirely dark, for though there were criminals from whom Jack the Ripper might have recoiled in horror, standing between the people and them were not just the forces of law and order, but the forces of law and order helped, indeed sometimes led, by beings so powerful and yet so good that they seemed like the Gods of old truly come to Earth.  Superman, Wonder Woman, Batman, Power Girl and the others had powers so awesome that in the wrong hands they could have been simply terrifying, but the whole point is that they weren’t because they were the Gods, and so had an unshakeable devotion to order and justice.  They combined unthinkable power with a concern for people that meant that they didn’t retreat into being arbitrary dispensers of their own law, but aided and helped the many.  Thus Superman, who could have become dictator of the world had he wanted, was grounded first by his childhood and then by his love for Lois Lane: it would be very hard to treat as nothing but the dirt beneath one’s feet that which one loved.  Viewed dispassionately, figures like Superman and Power Girl, aliens with more or less infinite power and no significant vulnerabilities, should be the stuff of terror, and yet they create hope because they have infinite power but are prepared not to use it, rejecting killing even of their worst enemies.  Superman was not our master, but our friend and protector.  And so he was the best kind of God: the good parent who is there to look out for their children when they fall into trouble, but who otherwise lets them live their own life.  ‘Truth, Justice and the American Way’ may not sound especially inspiring, especially in view of what the American Way has become in the past decade, but in terms of the outgoing, brave America of the past, it is a pretty good slogan to live by.

The present

It is not surprising that this optimistic, outward looking world-view coincided with the time of America’s great expansion from the isolationist colossus hiding behind the Monroe Doctrine into a world power which could be said to have tried (even if it often failed) to have stood for just those values that Superman used to espouse.  Unfortunately, the events of a decade ago put paid to that optimism.  Now Ronald Reagan’s ‘Morning in America’ has been replaced by a fretful, fearful inward gaze whose strongest exponents (often, ironically, Reagan’s self-proclaimed heirs) want not to share America’s wealth with the world, but to purify themselves, expelling all that might be considered un-American, as the only way of protecting themselves.  Hence we see the resurgence of the creed of American Exceptionalism, whereby the United States is different from the rest of the world not merely by virtue of being the world’s greatest nation (everyone believes that of themselves) or by virtue of having good things that others might like (the American way) but rather because it is set apart, like the Children of Israel in the Old Testament, as an elect that is qualitatively different from the rest of the world.  And therefore the old vision of sharing the wealth is no longer possible, and what matters is purity, and casting out the unclean, which naturally includes the foreign.

Now, proponents of American Exceptionalism may argue that it is optimistic, but it is, in fact, a deeply fearful philosophy.  If one feels that the world is good, and that right is on one’s side, why should one need to retreat into the fortress of solitude?  A creed like Exceptionalism will only arise when one feels that the world around one is a massive threat, and that one’s position truly is dangerous and possibly untenable.  In other words, it is the precise equivalent of the citizens of Gotham deciding to stay indoors because they fear the Joker and his ilk so much that they dare not risk going out.  And so their trust in the likes of Batman and Superman has been demolished.  In the real world it is easy to see how this has happened: a people traumatised by the attacks a decade ago, and shocked to discover that massive firepower is not enough to destroy an ideology, fear that the American way really is under attack, even though it manifestly is not.  But what has happened to Superman and Batman?

The heroes

The heroes have not fared well from this revamp.  The old Superman was grounded in humanity by his strong connections with people, particularly Lois Lane.  And yet the new Lois Lane has another human in her life, so a constant reminder that we mortals are not actually inferior beings seems to have been removed.  More worryingly, the new superheroes seem to be a petty, quarreling lot, more bothered with their egos and playing power games with one another than with their primary (one would have thought) concern of the safety of the people at large.  So, in the very first Justice League number, we see Batman and the Green Lantern ignoring weird alien monsters doing frightening stuff in order to have a good argument about who’s better, and when we finally meet Superman he’s not the peaceable, god-like being we expect, or if he is, he’s one of those gods that has a bad temper and enjoys hurting people.  In other words, the old nobility that was an essential part of these characters, has gone.

Now, this could be taken in several ways.  One could say that this is a reflection of loss of innocence as a result of the fiasco of the War on Terror, and the realisation that the good guys aren’t necessarily all that good.  However, there are more worrying implications.  For example, if Superman is no longer bound by human rules or human thinking, presumably what he does is right, not because it complies with our moral and legal norms, but simply because he does it.  His might is right.  This is precisely what we see in a United States where a sizeable proportion of the population believe that illegal acts are justified by the threat of terror, and where a probably illegal raid on a sovereign state resulting in the killing of a public enemy was the origin of outrageously vile public celebration.  Finally, without mighty powers to protect one, there is more to fear, the world becomes a more worrying place, because one cannot rely on the state or the superheroes.  If the mighty powers are too taken up with their own concerns to notice us, then all we can do is to hunker down and hope for the best.  And, of course, try to make ourselves fit for them to pay attention to us.  From this to covenantual thinking, the idea that America was hurt because America had become degenerate and somehow un-American, is but a step, and it seems to be one that at least some political leaders in the US have taken.

The villains

Harley Quinn: before and after

Equally illuminating is what has happened to the supervillains.  They too have undergone both belittlement and dehumanisation.  Thus the Joker, though he looks like his old self, is now not an utterly insane master of evil, whose every act is unpredictable and who exerts an unholy fascination by his sheer charismatic insanity, but a simple psychopathic killer.  At the same time he is both more frightening and less fascinating.  Similarly, Harley Quinn, who had been a frighteningly volatile psychotic with a larger-than-life approach to things and a strangely charming, even lovable, personality, is now simply a psychopath.  The same is true for other characters.  Now this has two aspects.  First, if a character is dehumanised, then their evil is somehow more frightening, because there’s nothing there for one to relate to, nothing to get a grip on.  They simply are, and their evil is incalculable and is simply something one must live with and cannot attempt to understand or do anything about.  As they are more frightening then any attempt to make contact with them is less likely to work, and therefore abandoning it is more easily justified.  If one is already lacking in self-confidence this is a great way of justifying one’s own fear.

The second aspect is more important.  If a character is dehumanised then it is impossible to feel sympathy for them.  The old Joker may have been a monster, but it was eminently easy to feel some connection, some beginnings of a connection; with the old Harley Quinn it was more or less impossible not to feel a connection.  If you can feel a connection with someone, however remote, then that is the beginning of understanding, and with understanding comes the possibility that they can be changed.  In other words, if you have enemies that you can connect with then there is the possibility that you may one day become friends.  But that is not what the Exceptionalist mindset wants.  Enemies are bad, and there is nothing to be learned from understanding them, for the Exceptionalist state is perfect and so there is no need for it to reach out to meet its enemies half way.  Indeed, there is even a risk that by attempting to understand the enemy one might become subject to pollution by their ideas, and remember that Exceptionalism is all about purity.  So Republicans tell us that the United States will totter if terror suspects are tried on US soil in a normal court, presumably because their mere presence, their mere right to speak, risks pollution.  Likewise those of a Republican mindset (masquerading as liberals) demonised Lars von Trier for saying that he felt sympathy for Hitler, which we all ought to do, for how else can we appreciate that something of him is in all of us, and therefore learn how to overcome it?  And finally, in the DC Comics Universe, the supervillains lose their charisma and glamour and become simply bad.  As such they are something we can hate and reject without thought, just as the thought police want us to hate and reject Hitler, pretending in the process that we are entirely free of thoughts such as his, and the American Exceptionalists want to hate and reject the other which they currently label as ‘Islam’.  It is a way of lying to oneself about ones own purity and absolving oneself of having to think about why others may not like one.

In conclusion

In this rather discursive survey I have, I hope, showed that key themes from the change in the DC Universe, from the optimism of the old model to the more ‘edgy’ new approach, appear to parallel directly the changes in American society over the last ten years.  As the US has moved gradually from being an open, confident society to a closed, fearful one, with diversity replaced by uniformity as the goal of many, so has the Universe of America’s unique mythology contracted in sympathy.  One hopes that the fascism that always lurked in the background of the superhero narrative, and occasionally erupted in such pieces as The Dark Knight Strikes Back,  does not arise in either the new DC Universe, or the real United States that it reflects.