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Defying Levity

 Robert M. Price


The recently deceased French philosopher, Jacques Derrida (whom I was highly privileged to meet briefly) once wrote a book called Limited, Inc., in which he sought to refute the contention of language philosopher Ronald Seale (quite a clever fellow himself) that most usages of language have a “proper” and original meaning that is twisted, tweaked, skewed, troped, or perverted when used in secondary ways, and that we can specify the “proper” use or meaning to distinguish it from the “improper” usage. Of course, Searle was not some schoolmarm warning us not to use “ain’t.” By “proper” and “improper,” he simply meant to define the difference between the literal and the figurative, the strict and the metaphorical, the primary and the secondary. One example would be the fictive recitation of wedding vows in a play or a skit. Are the actor and actress married when it is over? No, of course not, declared Searle. It was a secondary use and meaning of the vows, derivative from their “proper” use as a performative ritual.

But Derrida was not sure the church wedding and the stage wedding were all that different. Suppose you walked in off the street to a church that had been made over into a theatre, or into a theatre that was being rented by a church congregation, and you saw the wedding ritual being enacted. Would it be clear to you what was happening? You would be “reading” the text itself, without benefit of the social context which alone assigns meaning. Do you remember the Muppets skit in which Miss Piggy tells Kermit that they are exchanging vows only for the sake of a drama, but in fact the clergyman is quite real and has been hired to perform a genuine marriage? She is trying to trick her amphibian flame into marrying her by virtue of the fact that the ritual performance may simultaneously possess different meanings, and that therefore neither qualifies as the “proper” meaning.

            In just the same way, several years of enjoying superhero parodies and comedies like The Tick, Mystery Men, and The Incredibles has convinced me that it just doesn’t matter whether the superhero stories we are watching or reading are to be taken seriously or as a joke. We can tell the difference, but the mere fact of The Tick being played completely for laughs in no ways lessens the functioning of the genuine superhero elements in it. We begin to realize as we watch a battle with the Tick, Arthur, Die Fledermaus, and American Maid versus Bread Master or Chairface, that there is a set of elements including costumes, names, situations, and motivations that define the genre, and that the difference between “straight” and “comical” is not one of them. Serious superheroics have no claim on the copyright of “proper superheroics.” There is no such thing.

            Remember how simultaneously dramatic, even soap-operatic, yet also humorous Spider-Man comics have always been. What would the epic adventure of the Fantastic Four be without the sparring of the Thing and the Human Torch? Conversely, what would make all the humor stick to in Mystery Men if you didn’t have a central plot of genuine threat from the evil Casanova Frankenstein? There is a thinner line than you may first think between “serious” hero comics and their parodies.

            What then is the problem when some attempts at superhero humor fall flat? It is not that the very attempt is a sacrilege. It may be that they are just not funny.

Or it may be more serious: perhaps the story is sneering at the genre and its fans. The problem with the 60s TV version of Batman was that its writers seemed to operate from the premise, “No one could possibly take this crap seriously.” Well, in fact, one can, as the simultaneous Green Hornet series demonstrated quite well. One can also laugh at superheroes, as witness the contemporaneous Captain Nice and Mister Terrific series. But those were in the nature of laughing with, not laughing at.

Or the humor may seem incongruous with the usual humor quotient of the particular hero. I am thinking here of the Doc Savage movie. In one scene we saw one of the villain’s henchmen sleeping in a huge rocking crib. What the hell was that? Purely arbitrary. But there is a later scene in which the celibate Doc tactfully spurns the romantic advances of the heroine, praising her courage but little else with the comment, “Mona, you’re a brick!” This is an actual quote from the original novel! I guess I think it is better in such a case to preserve the original corn, no matter how campy it may seem, than to modernize, in which case Doc would have bedded the babe. (Such James Bondage didn’t sit well with me in either Superman 2 or the 1989 Batman.) The result is humorous precisely because it is faithful to the corny original.

Finally, it gripes me when superheroes are made the object of ridicule in such a way that the writer seems to be trying to subvert the primordial reason for telling the stories of heroes in the first place: the upholding of nobility and courage. L. Sprague de Camp comes perilously close to this line in works like The Tritonian Ring and “City of the Dead” when he shows a buffoonish side to Prince Vakar and to Conan. Lin Carter crosses it in his tales of Amalric the Man-God, where he makes his heroes into Hope and Crosby.

But it really doesn’t matter to me whether I am reading a serious or a comical superhero adventure. After all, they are called comic books.

4 by Robert M Price