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.
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.
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.