Monday, April 1, 2019

Jordan Peele's "Us" and Contemporary Social Protests

by Gabriel Alejandro

By now you must have seen or read it: Jordan Peele’s latest cinematic venture is a masterpiece that involves a doppelgänger trope to speak about the darkness within us, allegories of racism, metaphors of unfettered inequality that span through numerous social classes and races, family dynamics, and much more. Nevertheless, there is one aspect that has been, at least to my knowledge, largely unexplored, and that is the film’s commentary on the state of contemporary social protests. If one were to apply the film’s violent-but-ultimately-futile portrayal of a subaltern’s uprising to recent social struggles, one would find parallels in regards to their beginnings, public coverage, and inevitable normalization. And it is precisely this idea, the one that contemporary social protests have been “tethered” to past models which are destined to fail, that the film warns us against repeating.

Through this perspective, Us is a film about the tethered, a group that was made to live underground in the shadows of an upper society. After a number of decades experiencing subhuman conditions, they decide to make the upper society aware of their existence through violent and then “peaceful” means. The symbolism behind both group’s physical settings are meant to state the obvious: the society that lives above is better off than the one below. This is evidenced when Adelaide’s doppelgänger explains how, when the upper society ate, played, or did anything good, all the lower society had was a degraded version of it. The underground society was deprived of better quality of life because their plight was invisible to the upper-world dwellers.

It is important to note that many —if not, every— cultures have an underground group or various, depending on the case. These change according to temporal, social, historical, political, and even religious factors. Although the United State’s history has largely involved the African American experience as the subaltern, one should not restrict oneself to that sole interpretation for this film. Us’s portrayal of the disenfranchised can be a representation for many other experiences worldwide. Yet there is one element that still ties the film to the American experience and that is Red’s (Adelaide’s doppelgänger) idealization of  Hands Across America, a 1986 fundraising event that intended to help mitigate the rapid growth of homelessness and hunger in the United States. But as with many other initiatives that begin with good intentions, the end result left many with more gaps (pun intended) than the bridges it intended to create. 

Recent articles have resurfaced the contrasting opinions of Hands Across America thanks to Us. In The New York Times, Erik Piepenburg establishes that “By infusing Hands Across America with malevolent power, Peele is cinematizing one of the main criticism it faced in 1986: that it was a ‘superficial gesture that offered no long-term solution to poverty in the United States.’” Almost as an echo, Corey Plante writes in Invest that "Hands Across America essentially became a feel-good distraction for America in a time when homelessness was steadily becoming an epidemic thanks to President Ronald Reagan’s policies.” Both articles alude to the consequences of rampant symbolic gestures and superficial attitudes towards a problem that requires concrete action. More often than not, these types of initiatives place the actual problem in an abstract or unattainable plane and focus on the immediate satisfaction brought about the idea of helping others. In the case of Hands Across America, people paid a fee in order to participate and join hands with a person. After the event, there was no push towards policy change by lawmakers or the very same people who participated. Everyone felt they had already done what they could on the matter and even felt good about what little they had contributed.

So, how does this bode for the tethered and their movement? Well, the fact that Red wished to model their uprising after Hands Across America meant that her uprising would follow some of its ills. In regards to public perception, a similar “superficialization” of the tethered’s wishes was witnessed in the film. Soon after the attack on the surface world begins, Adelaide’s family turns on the news to find that there are other attacks happening nation-wide. While the news anchor speaks, Adelaide’s family notices that the information being shared is inaccurate and that no one else has noticed that these attackers are doppelgängers or much less learned where they come from or what their needs are. This scene can be taken as a allegory for what usually happens during instances where a subaltern or oppressed group decides to turn their concerns into action through protest. The surface-dwelling media can only grasp the shock and violence of the oppressed group’s immediate actions, but fail to deliver more in regards to the substance or needs behind them. If one were to take this into the real world, we would find striking similarities with recent protests such as Ferguson and Baltimore. In both cases, the actual concerns of the people where ultimately muddled by media coverage that decided to focus on the more striking aspects. This, in turn, distorted public perception and furthered the viewers' understanding from reality.

In addition, one can also find commentary on the longevity or effectiveness of contemporary protests. As we saw before, Hands Across America offered no long-term solutions and served more as a  temporary distraction from hunger and homelessness. In that respect, we can infer that the second part of the revolt, the part where the tethered hold hands and spread across the nation, will end in a similar manner. Red’s revolution, although justifiable, seems to have no real concrete goal besides public recognition. Once they begin linking to each other, the violence stops and all that is left is a symbolic gesture for the cameras to see. This is seen in the ending of the movie, as we see miles and miles of tethered joining hands together with helicopters flying above them. These helicopters are not piloted by under-worlders, they are above-world military and, probably, some are even recording the images for others to see. If we continue comparing this to recent events, we notice that, after a protest’s shocking beginnings, what follows is an idealization of the issues that are brought forward. People and policy makers begin discussing the topics in a distanced and idealized fashion, putting off any real talk of solutions. The whole event then becomes swallowed by the 24-hour news cycle until it is replaced with whatever comes next. This will be the sad fate of Red and her tethered’s uprising.

Aside from it all, the film also reflects an over-encompassing notion of what happens when we model our social movements after others from the past. Time after time, we see how, after a protest breaks out, opinions from the right and left sides of the political spectrum race to compare it to past movements. For example, whenever a racial struggle breaks out, the Civil Rights Movement of the sixties is brought forward. People from the right conjure up Martin Luther King Jr.’s nonviolence approach to condemn the initial shock and violence while people from the left remind everyone that, in moments of radical change, violence has made its presence to some degree. This conversation just steers the people’s attention in the wrong direction. The possibility of working towards a solution is replaced with historical debate, another distraction from the actual problem that only benefits a news channel's content. The final result is, again, not that different from what we have seen in recent years. A problem comes, is televised, is normalized, and then quickly forgotten.

Many of you may ask for a resolve to this cycle of indifference. Peele does not really present a definitive answer, but he does offer us a symbol. The pair of scissors, the weapon of choice by the tethered, acquires much more significance in this aspect. While for Red and her movement it represented attaining disconnection from their upper-world counterparts and from the capitalist tradition of subjugated groups, it could also very well mean that we must untether our narratives of social struggle from those of the past in order to create new, more effective ones for the future. Perhaps this would be a first step in ending the cycle of indifference. 

Cited articles:

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

On a Superhero’s Ideals and Their Reluctance to Change

by Gabriel Alejandro 

“[But] Are you the Superman that the 21st century needs? Why not use your power to ‘fix’ the world?”
-From Superman Vs. The Elite, 2012

     Superheroes have represented humankind’s limitations ever since their creation. Whether it be the power to fly, x-ray vision, or just super intelligence, their traits often reflect the frustration of a group facing a seemingly impossible challenge. For example, both Superman and Batman were born out of the Great Depression. The economic difficulties and usual questioning of immigrants that comes as a consequence of difficult times were embodied in a alien who arrived on earth seeking refuge and a billionaire (perhaps millionaire, at the time) who used his wealth to help the less fortunate. But super powers did not give them the permission to abuse them. In fact, it just meant that a larger sense of responsibility had to be administered. This came from an ideal perspective of responsibility that echoed American exceptionalism. Later, when Marvel arrived unto the scene, their heroes offered a fresh and optimistic perspective that the Sixties so desperately needed. They applied the same sense of responsibility to a decade marked by Cold War propaganda, Civil Rights movement protests, and Vietnam-conflict bloodshed. By doing so, they cemented countless unwritten superhero rules such as “no killing,” which stemmed from a particular ideal of justice. Now, more than fifty years have passed. Our innocence has faded along with our ideals of responsibility and justice, but superheroes still go by the same standards that they did back when they first arrived. Should they be brought up to modern policies or should they be kept as historic records of past mentalities?

  Next I will analyze recent Superman, Batman, and Captain America events that put into question their role and that of their ideals in modern society. I chose these heroes because they are the earliest examples of the superhero archetype and carried an ideal. I know that I left out excellent ones like Wonder Woman (feminist icon) and obvious ones like Spider-Man (“With great power comes great responsibility”) out of the article, but I needed it to be short and concise. If anyone is willing to write one about any other superhero’s adaptability, they are more than welcome to submit it. 


  Superman Vs. The Elite (2012, cover picture) is an adaptation of a Joe Kelly story (by Kelly himself) titled What’s Funny About Truth, Justice & the American Way?, published in Action Comics #775 (March 2001). The story pits Superman against a new group of superheroes called The Elite, led by Manchester Black (a bit stereotypical for an English superhero, no?). But why would Superman go against another superhero team if they are, in fact, superheroes? The answer lies in a matter of principle. Unlike Superman, Manchester Black’s team, The Elite, does not mind getting its hands dirty when it comes to crime fighting. In fact, in the Action Comics version of the story, this is how they introduce themselves to the public: by killing everyone involved in a conflict before Superman could even get to the scene. This strikes a chord with one of Superman’s strongest mandates: thou shall not kill. But much to Kal-El’s surprise, the act is well received among the public opinion who take advantage of the situation to express a growing dislike towards the status quo. This causes Superman to question his place in the modern world: are his ideals still relevant? Is HE still relevant?

The disapproval of the status quo can be taken up outside Superman’s world and into the comic book reader’s world. For years now, big-hero comic book sales have been declining due to readers turning their attention into other no-so-super, grittier titles. This is due, in part I believe, to lack of adaptability. Today’s world is much more in tune with the reality of war and, thanks to social media, can even witness it first-hand from the comfort of their home. The growing cynicism that has come as a result demands its heroes to be more “real” and in par with what audiences see on a daily basis.

But the audience’s growing rejection of the status quo is not limited to the fiction they consume. Recent tragedies such as Charlie Hebdo and the Boko Haram kidnappings have stirred debate on how global entities such as the United Nations should deal with extremist opponents. The people who question the old, diplomatic ways favor a more hands-on approach like The Elite. Their argument is that modern, religious-driven “terrorists” do not act on reason and therefore we should not waste time trying to reason with them. They feel that governments are upholding a  moral value system that is outdated and will not work against this new threat. In a sense, we see how Superman’s convictions mirror those of our world order (Kelly correlates truth and justice to the “American way” which also happens to be “Superman’s way,” however problematic you may find it) and just as our real world leaders struggle to maintain relevance in the world power stage, Superman struggles to maintain himself relevant in the comic book sphere. It is important to note that the book was published just months before the September 11 attacks, leaving us to question if it would have been any different had it been published after the event.


  Perhaps the one who has had a better time aging has been Batman. His menacing presence and psychological trauma has allowed for writers to come up with darker storylines that live up to some modern standards. They even stopped calling him superhero in favor of a more believable “detective.” That being said, Batman has got to be one of the stronger maintainers of the status quo. He keeps his rogues gallery not too far (locked in Arkham Asylum) where they  are just a sneeze away from breaking out, running amok, and returning after being beaten senselessly. Like Superman, he has been questioned on many occasions about his decision not to kill when it would save him a lot of trouble and his answer always evokes an inmutable concept of justice.

  A memorable moment was presented in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight (2008) when our caped crusader saw himself crossing over boundaries even he feared. Beginning with the extradition of a Chinese bank accountant who fled the U.S. avoiding trial and then using a highly problematic sonar tracker on the citizens of Gotham, Batman’s actions were just a metaphor of the United States’ internal and external policies after September 11. Many do not remember how, after the attacks, the U.S. struggled to assess its new enemy. On the exterior, they had to justify military intervention in order to “prevent” future attacks and, in the interior, they proposed the highly controversial Patriot Act which included wiretapping the whole nation “for their own safety.” We see again how the nation’s supposed interests match those of our superhero, but this time the hero does not go all in. Even though Batman also struggles with his new enemies, he is fully aware that the means blur moral and ethical lines. Everything sort of ends up in hypocrisy after Batman does agree to do both things “just this once,” giving in to the notion that rules are meant to be broken in the time of war. Still, his questioning of the whole event can give us an idea of what 1939’s Batman would think of 2008’s Batman, as well as what would 1939’s United States would think of post-September 11 United States. The only difference being that Batman went on the record as saying that it was wrong, while we are still waiting for the other to even address it.

Captain America

  Time for a Marvel character to join the list. In my opinion, Captain America is one of the most misunderstood superheroes and it is largely due because of the name he bears. Many believe that the ideal he represents is that of the current U.S.A., when in fact, Captain America’s semiotic object never left the year/moment he was created in, thus making him the perfect emblem of an ideology whose nation has changed, but the character’s did not.

  To begin with a comic book history perspective, Captain America was created to fill the need for a more “physical” superhero during World War II. Previous comic book characters such as Superman and Batman not only did not kill, but they also avoided detailed physical confrontations (it is believed to be because of the artist’s inability to draw “real” fights). That is why on the cover of Captain America’s first issue we saw him punching Hitler square on the face. This was meant to appease the then-modern audience’s thirst for action during the war. Their hatred towards Hitler and the amounting anti-Nazi propaganda the U.S. served had rallied the people into a patriotic frenzy that had to be released. Luckily, Jack Kirby’s experience in the Suffolk Street Gang (Grant Morrison, Supergods 38) that he had been a part of when young served as a creative model for his illustrations and they were a hit (no pun intended).

But it would be only a matter of time before Captain America joined the rest of the “aged” superhero crew. His identity became more problematic as the years passed and the world’s perception of the U.S. changed. The Cap’s name would be forever linked to the nation’s foreign debacles even though Steve Rogers opposed their actions and philosophy in the comics. His return during the Sixties had made him socially aware: he believed Vietnam should end in a peace agreement and later, during the 70s, fought against a government association that was headed by president Nixon himself (Dominic Tierney, Did Captain America Really Sleep Through Vietnam?). He finally ended up hanging the suit in 1974 because of his dislike for the U.S. nation’s actions and distanced himself by becoming Nomad. But, since nothing in the comic book world lasts forever, he was meant to grab the shield once again, but as Tierney states in his article: “When he finally grasps the shield again, Cap decides he will fight for American ideals, and not for the administration in Washington. ‘I'm loyal to nothing ... except the [American] Dream.’” The “Dream” mentioned not being the applied version, but the idealized version of it.

During the past decade the Captain has had to endure the same world changes as Superman and Batman. He did not go after Islamist extremists and chase them off the map because, as we have seen, that is not his way. He has rather stayed inside and favored local policies in a time when politics have become extremely polarized and a second wind of the civil rights movement has emerged. I have praised Rick Remender’s Captain America (2012-) a number of times and this is one of the main reasons for doing so. By removing Rogers, sending him to Dimension Z for a number of years and then bringing him back to earth, Remender replayed the Captain’s 1963 return, but for today's standards. Since Remender knew the Captain would not submit the U.S.’ current ideals, he brought the whole media and public opinion against him. Unlike Superman, Captain America did not question his relevancy in modern times, but he did question the United States government decision-making during modern times. 

Steve Roger’s last bout came at the hands of Zola who drained him of his serum and left him an aged soldier (perfect analogy for this article). And, in a move that seemed logical to some of us, Sam Wilson, The Falcon, was chosen to be the new Captain America. The implications of the move were big. The change came at a time when gay rights are being debated in the political sphere in a way that reminded many of the 1960s civil rights movement. In addition, African Americans across the U.S. were marching on the streets seeking justice for Michael Brown and Eric Garner, two victims of police shootings whose perpetrators were not indicted. The argument of a new America can be established here with Sam Wilson as the face. Steve Rogers could question authority all he wanted, but if there was one thing he could never reflect, it was the diversity of the American people. Nevertheless, a costume or physical change does not suppose a change in ideal. Sam Wilson upholds the same concept of justice as Rogers before him. And even though it is still too early to say in the series with Wilson at the helm, it would be interesting to see if this becomes a point of discussion. 


I do realize that, at this point, both DC and Marvel establish limits for their characters when a new writer is hired. This certainly does prevent the creative team from moving away of what has already been established. The audience is also a key factor in accepting or rejecting new material. Zack Snyder’s heavily-derided Superman film Man of Steel showed him killing General Zod and the audience did not approve. Many other stories where our characters have bent or simply broken their rules have been written, but they are always discarded as “Elseworlds” or “What If?” This article centers around a canon that includes comic book storyline and the public acknowledgment of said canon. 

Still, it is interesting to trace a character’s immutability for more than five decades. Even more when the nation their ideals were based on has changed so much. Superman will always be the boy scout of America, upholding the chain of command for as long as it exists even though he may know that it is not completely right. His devotion to preserving order and a form of central power belong in his ideal. It is why Frank Miller easily wrote him as a government puppet in The Dark Knight Returns (1986). Batman will be Superman’s opposite in style of achieving things, but they will still share the same principles. Finally, Captain America has been the one to question things from early on. This has produced many changes in esthetic, but nothing at the core. You can say that the Captain is a symbol whose referent is stuck in time. But for the three, the ideal stays the same even though the times keep moving forward and the standard of what a superhero is moves along with it.   


Morrison, Grant. Supergods: What Masked Vigilantes, Miraculous Mutants, and a Sun God from Smallville Can Teach Us about Being Human. New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2011. 

Tierney, Dominic. Did Captain America Really Sleep Through Vietnam?. The Atlantic, 26 July. 2011. Web. Feb. 2015. <>

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Grant Morrison's Pax Americana, the JFK Assassination, and Comic Book Storytelling

 By: Ricardo A. Serrano Denis

Multiversity: Pax Americana. Grant Morrison & Frank Quitely
Kennedy's death has been a fascination of the pop culture kind. The actual aesthetics of it make the event all the more iconic. It brings us back to the infamous "back and to the left" scene in Oliver Stone's JFK (1991) movie where District Attorney Jim Garrison replays the video of Kennedy's head bursting after the kill shot, over and over again, to an audience gripped by horror. The video came courtesy of Abraham Zapruder, an American manufacturer of women's clothing, and a Democrat, who got to Dealey Plaza early in order to get a good spot to take pictures of Kennedy's motorcade. Kennedy was going to ride through the plaza on his way to the Dallas Trade Mart where he was going to give a speech. Zapruder's video footage is often used to argue the existence of a second or even third gunman at the plaza that day (November 22nd, 1963), possibly located in the Grassy Knoll area (situated at the northwest side of it). It had a very clear view of the motorcade as it turned close to the Book Depository, where the official version has Oswald readying his rifle. But the film also gave us the final images of the assassination. In doing so Abraham Zapruder gave American culture an universal template for political assassinations.

     Zapruder's home movie is basically an incomplete anatomy of the assassination. It gave investigators visual entry into the crime scene, if only in part. It also gave comic book writers, cinematographers, and artists a visual point of reference from which to work from. Artists, writers, and comic book creators usually explore the actual trajectory of the bullets, the ones that end in kill shots in particular, in order to better sell an action or an assassination sequence. This opens up new storytelling possibilities and makes for a sense of authenticity when representing or recreating a political assassination.  President Kennedy's assassination can still be argued as the visual standard for this.

Stracynsky's Sidekick is an example of the
JFK assassination as visual template.

     For example, the angle of the shot that produced Kennedy's fatal head wound, as Zapruder's video shows, suggests not all shots could have come from the sixth floor of the Texas School Book Depository Building, where it was said Lee Harvey Oswald positioned himself to shoot at the President. Officially, Oswald fired three shots that produced 7 wounds between Kennedy and Texas governor John Connally in addition to the head shot. And one of the bullets missed. That bullet, according to the Warren Report, hit concrete a little farther up the motorcade. This caused the concrete to splinter and hit James Tague, a Dallas car dealer who was standing a few feet east of the eastern edge of the triple underpass railroad bridge. The final shot would come shortly after. And with that, history gave popular culture a spectacular yet problematic set of images to play with.

     Perhaps one of the most recent reimaginings of the Kennedy assassination comes in Grant Morrison's Multiversity: Pax Americana. Illustrated by Frank Quitely, the comic book's opening pages see an American president getting murdered, while on a motorcade, in reverse sequencing. The President is seen to be grabbing a flag with the peace sign over his head, serving more as a bullseye than a symbol of more ideological connotations, while smiling to an unseen crowd. We are immediately reminded of Kennedy here, setting himself up as a reference point for Pax Americana's opening scene. The fact the president is holding a peace flag reminds the reader of Kennedy's 'ultimate diplomat' myth. Kennedy's death, it was quickly concluded, meant peace was off the table (at least in terms of public debate). It was as if Kennedy was peace's last resort, the answer to John Lennon's "Give Peace A Chance" plea. In a twist of historical fate, but mostly because of the Kennedy Administration's own foreign policy decisions, Vietnam started for real shortly after the assassination. There was an air of reinvigorated militarism in Lyndon B. Johnson's White House (the Vice-President who took over Kennedy's administration) and America was slowly being taken farther away from the mythic and utopic ideals of Kennedy's own version of peace (which historians are still unsure as to how it would have looked like).

The shooter is falling from the sky.
     Pax Americana's assassination scene, then, captures this highly problematic set of historic circumstances. The fact the assassination is played backwards here leaves the reader with a sense of historical revision that further adds to the mystery behind the actual shooting. We are shown the dynamics of the president's movements, his reaction to the kill shot first. As the opening panels pull back, we see the President has been shot from above, the bullet entering through the base of his head going straight down, shattering his jaw. It is an inversion of Kennedy's kill shot, where the final bullet (whose trajectory is inferred from Zapruder's home movie) comes from the President's right (some argue from the Grassy Knoll) and blows out the back of his head, leaving a gaping wound. Kennedy's death is bloody, shocking, and definite. So it goes with Pax Americana's American President in the opening scenes.

     The Kennedy assassination parallels do not stop with the head wound or the trajectory of the kill shot. In fact, it is in relation to the kill shot's trajectory that we see what can be best argued as an attempt at historical satire, done in a very subtle way. The shooter, which looks like a rogue superhero, is revealed as falling from the sky while aiming down the scope of a rather large silenced sniper rifle (or high-powered rifle). The shot actually comes from sky. At a simple glance, this can be taken as a ridiculing of the official version of Kennedy's assassination, which explains that Lee Harvey Oswald was the lone gunman responsible for 7 bullet wounds between the President and Governor Connally and the final head shot that culminated the killing. It is as if Morrison equates Oswald's sharp shooting skills with that of a superhero falling from the sky while hitting a perfect head shot. Reality's doubt makes for great comic book storytelling.

     The killer is eventually captured and his motives questioned. But we are left in the dark as to the true intentions behind the assassination. Instead, the comic turns inwards and explores the narrative mechanics of a post-Kennedy world trying to recapture lost American counterculture ideals as reimagined by a very problematic group of superheroes. And it is all set up by an opening sequence that invites us to revisit President Kennedy's death down to the last gory detail, even if it is meant as a very subtle critique on the controversies surrounding the death America's 35th president.
     It might be easier, more psychologically manageable  to believe that a lone gunman can kill the President of the United States, especially if he is falling from the sky equipped with nothing but a high-powered rifle and a parachute. But there is something oddly spectacular about imagining and reimagining the assassination of an American president. It captures an historic sense of controversy and mystery while reflecting on the death of an utopian dream.  That we automatically resort to Kennedy when thinking of such things speaks to the power of historical memory as a referent for creating fiction, especially when we want to get the violence right.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Batman is a Horror Comic

By: Ricardo A. Serrano Denis

     Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, Grant Morrison’s Arkham Asylum, Scott Snyder's The Court of the Owls, all stories featuring an iconic character that is one step behind Dracula, Batman. Bruce Wayne, a gallant attraction that plays down his alter ego as an entity entirely detached from himself, is two fangs away from giving into the vices of the classic monster. But he is much more than just a variation of the vampire character. He is something else entirely. Batman is another type of monster, a creature that fights crime with something much worse than it, madness (the very thing that leads to it). This makes Batman a horror comic.

        When Doug Moench and Kelly Jones turned Batman into a bloodsucker, in Batman & Dracula: Red Rain (1991), the vampire metaphor seemed to hit too close to the chest. In fact, Moench and Jones played exactly into what we expected from a vampire Batman: Bruce Wayne finally becomes the Bat. He submits his last bits of humanity to it, letting the costume become the new skin. But he remains a crusader. The lust for blood only adds to the challenge of keeping justice and order under his control. There is no letting loose on Gotham’s innocent bystanders, his rules are never tested, and he remains a superhero, just with added powers. What he does do is embrace the death of Bruce Wayne, telling Alfred he has truly become the Batman. Gotham’s nights are now entirely his, regardless of him becoming a slave to them in the process. The character truly reveals himself as a weary knight in black armor, shedding any trace of the identity that could lead him back to his human form.

      And yet, his dark knighthood holds itself truer to horror when we realize his becoming a bat was no accident. It was a choice. The murder of Bruce Wayne’s parents was quite simply the waking up of a demon, willed into existence. It plays into the origin story of a man that could either embrace a Superman-like light or a darkness-induced decent into something worse. He chose the latter. And the terror that comes with that darkness is even more frightening when Bruce is accepted as the real mask, the actual suit.

     There is no batsuit. There is only a monster over a man. Bruce is secondary to the Batman, a walking alibi that enables Gotham’s monster crusader. Villains like the Joker, Two-Face, Penguin, and the Riddler stop being darker reflections of the Batman once we accept this. Instead they are the keepers of the bat faith. Their terrorizing the city can be seen as an act of adoration, a penance to be paid to be granted presence with the bat-lord. Alternately, these villains turn Batman into an aspiration, the standard for the horror they can impart. Again, their villainy becomes an act of worship, a pledge of allegiance to the Bat King, the night stalker, the victim the city spewed out as the hero it deserved. A monster built in its own image. 

      Gotham City adds to the horror by playing to the hero’s bleakness. Its buildings are more protrusions than man-made structures. They reach for the sky as if a gun is pointed at them. But it is Batman who holds the gun, the virus that creates the lesser monsters that terrorize it. Gotham may have created the monster, but the monster brought with it its admirers. It is a cycle that keeps the city under siege. Every new villain must be blessed by the Bat King as worthy of being one of his monsters. And to be blessed is to be admitted into Arkham Asylum, the temple of the bat-faith.

      But the Bat King is a complicated creature. He needs to submit one of his identities to the other in order to truly transform into the bat. In order to accomplish this, Batman turns Bruce Wayne in a protective shell, a cave, if you will, that serves the purpose of sheltering the monster during the daytime. In other words, Bruce Wayne becomes Batman's lair.

   Now, the fact Wayne surrendered himself to the bat to root out evil might keep the bat-monster in check, but it is in the darkness that surrounds his concept of justice that we find the true horror of Batman. For Batman, justice is horror (out of fear) turned into a weapon, a thing that plays to the strengths of its nature. Fear becomes a voice, terror a trap, horror the purpose. Batman’s history never falters on these principles. They turn the bat into a hero that demands the city remain dark, like a price to be paid for its safety.

     Fear becomes Gotham, it keeps it alive. Batman’s idea of justice means keeping the city hostage, his hostage. It is of no wonder, then, that so many worshipers, Batman’s rogues gallery, gravitate towards it. It is their home, a place that accepts them for who they really are. It has to. It would be unbecoming to reject those that so faithfully follow in the footsteps of the bat. They become acolytes, servants to the Bat King that pay their respects in pain. One must consider that every one of the Joker’s transgressions to Batman’s rule of law is done in the hopes of receiving the bat-monster’s blessings, manifested in the form of bruises and broken bones. And that is why Batman is a horror comic. Because its hero wants us to be afraid of him.

Monday, September 1, 2014

The Semiotics of Alan Moore

Fashion Beast #6, Alan Moore, Malcom McLaren, & Antony Johnston
By: Gabriel Alejandro

      Alan Moore, one of the most recognizable names in comics, is known for taking the medium to a whole new plateau. Whether you love him for his work or hate him for his rants, everyone can agree that his stories differ from others in the way they incorporate elements of myth, sexuality, and mysticism, to name a few. At the bottom of each instant lies a constant variable which is Moore’s understanding of language. In his 2005 documentary, The Mindscape of Alan Moore, he tells an anecdote of a bard who writes a satire as revenge instead of placing a curse. The satire’s strength and longevity on the victim depended on how “skillful” the bard was, meaning how well he worded it. Here, we get a glimpse of Moore’s working philosophy: a story’s power (or message) relies on the mastery and use of language by its bard (or author). But mastering a language does not stop at having proper syntax and grammar. No. It also implies having a commanding knowledge of language’s structural role in “magic” and story-making throughout recorded history. Thus, new stories acquire past symbols and experiences that make it relevant to the human experience and, on a more personal level, memorable to the reader.


      Every tale, epic, and legend since the early civilizations has survived in contemporary cultures with modifications by the different language structures around the world. These adaptations are possible due to “equivalents” in each language, words that point to more or less the same meaning. For the sake of argument and keeping this article short, I will not dabble into the untranslatability of language or the precision (or lack of) with which symbols approach their semiotic objects. These arguments, although real and worthy of hearing, would divert the article from the main subject and could extend it to dissertation-like lengths. Now, without getting too much into translation or linguistic theory, language itself is a system of symbols (letters) that, when put together, form other symbols (words) that stand for a thing, idea or concept. For example, the word “pencil” does not look or smell like an actual pencil, but it points to the physical object. It bears no similarity to the word lápiz in Spanish, except for the fact that they both point to the same object. The same applies to a logo that stands for a religious, political, or general belief. The image has no real connection to the ideal besides the one that has been bestowed upon it by people, history, tradition; you choose. This is one of the basic principles of Semiotics, the study of symbols (something that stands in for something else) and the relationship with their meaning. 

   Promethea issue 17, page 22

      Comics are an art form that feature both images and words. A Semiotical analysis can be applied to the dialogue and to the scenario in the panels of a book. Like films, which start as a script full of text, comic books start as a script that often detail the colors, objects, and symbols to be drawn. This is where Alan Moore’s knowledge of past tales and rituals has been evident. The names, themes, and imagery in his work often range from Hebrew, Greek, modern, and even occult iconography. His League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (1999-present) series teams up science fiction characters from various renowned 19th-century authors such as Jules Verne, Bram Stoker, Robert Louis Stevenson, H. G. Wells, and more, to fight a common enemy. One of his most famous characters (if not THE most famous), simply named “V” from V for Vendetta (1982-1989), is a revolutionary hero who wears a Guy Fawkes’ mask, a member of the Gunpowder Plot attempt in 1605 London. The purpose behind never seeing V’s face is explained in a panel where he states that he (and his actions) is only meant to be taken as an idea of uprise and revolution. The meaning behind using a Guy Fawkes’ mask is also semiotical, since it points to another moment in British history when a group of people stood up for their beliefs. More recently, in our reality, the Guy Fawkes’ mask has become the official logo of hacktivist group Anonymous and the short-lived Occupy Wall Street movement.

More than Meets the Eye

      Beyond the visual realm, Alan Moore has also woven symbols of the past into the structure of his stories seamlessly. Although he often tells you what they mean or gives you a key to understand it, many do not follow because they see it as part of the fiction. These stories follow a path where the sequence of events emulate the structure of an ancient myth or ritual. Since it is better to show you than to just explain it, I will mention three scenarios that I consider most memorable where Moore applied this structural semiotic as I have come to call it.

I. Death of Baldur, Top Ten issue #7  

      Top Ten is a series about a police precinct in a world where everyone has a superpower. They answer the call of duty just as any regular police force would and in issue #7 of the first series, they receive a call from a bar named “Godz” about a homicide. Upon arrival, a man in white whose words are depicted in Nordic font explains the situation: moments before, a party had taken place at the bar, but was halted when the man’s son was murdered. Once inside they identify the body as Baldur Wodenson, the god of beauty, and an investigation ensues. Now, if you are not familiar with who Baldur is (or was), the events that follow will completely go over your head. But if you are familiar with this deity, then you would have figured out that the man, his father, is Woden (Odin), the all-father from the Norse mythology (which explains the font).

     The sequence of events that follow are just as if you were to insert yourself in the middle of an ancient story. Smax, the hot-headed member of the Top Ten crew, clashes with the egos of other deities before we see Baldur’s brother, who confesses to the murder and admits that the weapon, a mistletoe, was given to him by Lokk (Loki), the god of mischief. In the myth, Baldur and his mother, Frigg, had dreamt of the death and understood it as a prophecy. To avoid the prophecy from realization, Frigg persuades every object in the realm to vow not to harm Baldur. Every object makes the vow except, you got it, the mistletoe. The death of Baldur is also considered as the first step in a chain of events that lead to Ragnarök, the end and rebirth of mankind. In the comic, when Woden speaks of bringing about Ragnarok as a result of his son’s death, Smax is filled with rage and they both engage in an argument. Luckily, Peacock, another member of the Top Ten squad who is well versed in mythology, enters the scene and begins laughing after learning of the situation. When asked about the purpose of his laughter, he responds that gods, as semiotic symbols, are always present and that their stories are always happening. In that moment, Baldur wakes up and the party resumes only to end in his death over and over again. This circular time notion is common both in mythology and in Moore’s work

“Well, gods are eternally recurring symbols, Syn. They’re stories. The death of Baldur’s been going on since before time… and it will happen again tomorrow.”

II. Occult and Masonic Architecture of London, From Hell Chapter 4 

      In From Hell, Alan Moore gives a backstory to the legend of Jack the Ripper, a serial killer in 1888 London. By establishing that his alter ego was a physician and that the murders were linked to a royal conspiracy, Moore built a myth of his own over an already-existing one. William Gull (the Ripper) sees himself as doing a service to humanity. His acts serve to remind the populace of mankind’s fading knowledge of symbols and rituals. The fact that his victims were all women was attributed to the character’s misogynist beliefs and wish to destroy the symbol of the woman, which was acquiring power at the time (with women’s suffrage). By completing his work, his murders, he was certain that the symbol of the Ripper would be immortalized in the pages of history; and he succeeded. In reality, Jack the Ripper is known as the first “pop” serial killer. He wrote letters to the police which were published in local newspapers but was never apprehended. Many confessed to the crimes but were later released because of insufficient evidence. The legend inspired so many other copy-killings at the time that they blurred his trace and cops never found him.

      In Chapter 4 of From Hell, Gull asks his carman, John Netley, to drive him around the city of London. Netley did, in fact, exist, and is known for being accused of aiding the real Ripper by author Stephen Knight in a book titled Jack the Ripper: The Final Solution (1976). The purpose of the stroll is to show how the history of London reflects itself on the architecture of the city. Among the many, many historical facts, he pinpoints the location of events such as the death of Boudica, queen of the British Iceni who rebelled against the Romans, the pagan tribes that once lived in Hackney, and narrates the evolution of architecture from early Cretan and Mycenaean culture. Aside from the visual symbols of the building, the ride itself follows the path of a star which they draw upon a map after the ride. The star is the seventeenth card in a Tarot deck. It is interpreted as the integration of two opposite sides: the material and the subconscious worlds. The character of William Gull alludes to this during his dialogue with Netley: “All human brains, yours own included, Netley, have two sides: the left is Reason, Logic, Science […] The Right is Magic, Art and Madness.” Gull’s obsession with the ritual of symbols eventually leads him to madness after having a vision of the future and seeing what humanity becomes.

“… symbols have POWER, Netley… Power enough to turn even a stomach such as yours… or to deliver half this planet’s population into slavery.” (From Hell Chapter 4, page 23)

III. All 32 issues of Promethea  

Promethea is, without a doubt, the most semiotically-conscious book I have ever read. Everything from the characters, plots, events, and even the settings stand as a reference to something else. Promethea is an Egyptian deity that dwells in the realm of “Inmateria” (non-material): dreams, stories, fiction, art, etc. In order to summon her and to become her, one only needs to manifest her in some artistic form like writing a short poem or drawing a sketch. Moore basically made a story about his views on writing. The author as the magician who casts spells or stories in order to create magic; the worlds, inhabitants, and situations in his stories. The plot thickens when Sophie Bangs, the new Promethea, leaves the material world to look for Barbara, the previous Promethea. Before she sets on her journey, she meets up with a magician called Jack Faust who trains her in the art of magic so she does not get lost. As I mentioned at the beginning of the article, Moore’s perspective of magic is mostly in a linguistic sense. Training Sophie in magic meant that she learned of a great number of myths since the beginning of recorded history and their meanings.

      The journey through “Inmateria” follows the structure and symbology of the Tarot deck. Moore dedicated issue 12 of the series to explaining the Tarot card by card so the readers would know where to stand in the story. Since the realm of “Inmateria” is the same as imagination, we get to see visual representations of mythological, science-fiction, and religious figures. We also see concepts such as death, language, salvation, and spirituality, among many more. The art is also key in every issue. J .H. Williams III explored different esthetics in each issue, giving every level of “Inmateria” a different feel through visual means. After the journey through “Inmateria,” the references continue to pour in different ways. My most memorable moment was right after the journey, when Sophie’s friend Stacie takes her to court over custody of the Promethea role (Stacie had filled in for Sophie while she was away). The court’s judge is King Solomon from the bible and he references it often by suggesting they cut Promethea in half so each girl could have a share. This is a direct quote from 1 Kings 3:16-28, in which Solomon judges a situation between two women; two harlots. The problem was that the two women lived in the same house and each gave birth a couple of days apart. The baby of one of the women died and the other survived. The mother of the baby who died claimed the living baby from her mother and thus the latter took her to court. The King then suggests they cut the baby in half in order to smoke out the real mother, who would object to it and prefer the baby stayed alive even if it was not with her. And it is exactly what happens, both in the bible and in Promethea. After the judge suggests it for about the third time, Sophie’s friend agrees to it but Sophie does not, citing that she would rather not be Promethea if it would mean so much trouble. Solomon declares Sophie as the sole Promethea after uttering “Every time. it works like a charm!”

      There are so many things that I may have left out from the books, Semiotics, and even Alan Moore. But the real joy in this is to experience it for yourself. When you approach a book, do more than just read it. Research every nook and cranny that appears in it, all the way from the names to the backgrounds. That is one of the perks of comic books. Many are quick to judge Alan Moore for his beliefs and how he portrays them in his work, but they do not see that every author does this. The late literary critic Terrece Hawkes once said that “All writing takes place in the light of other writing, and represents a response to the ‘world’ of writing that pre-exists…” (Structuralism and Semiotics 101). In other words, every author’s influences are present in his work, whether they be political or philosophical. Moore’s “world” of writing is that which constantly and eternally points to the past, seeking equivalents in different cultures and languages. If you want to know how he and other authors do it, or would like to do some of your own, then all you need is to learn magic and all will become clear.