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Committed: What British Comic Writers Learned from Thatcher

If a cigar can be just a cigar, and not some obvious phallic symbol to be endlessly sucked and played with, then can a superhero ever be just a superhero, or is it always representative of a deeper, more complex need within us?

One of the stand-out moments from the Warren Ellis documentary (Captured Ghosts) previewed in New York last month was when he spoke about his attitude towards the superhero. His voice dripping with disgust and distain, he bemoaned the human desire to look up to something bigger and stronger than oneself. As an unabashed fan of Ellis’ work, I would have to say that his attitude towards the superhero has served him well. Without even a bit of hesitation, he takes the genre and turns it all upside down, he is a pioneer in the field of cranky, pissed off superheroes who act more like villains and I love him for it. When they aren’t homicidal psychopaths, they’re just tired of the game and perfectly content to use every tool at hand to get their way. He’s good at creating the kind of dynamics which wouldn’t work for a writer more comfortable with our blatant desire for superheroes to look up to, specifically because he wants so badly to make us question that desire.

Breathing life into the genre with his irreverent humor exposing the idiosyncrasies of the superheroes he writes, Ellis is part of a now familiar trope; The anti-superhero British comic book writers who grew up in the 1980′s. Of course Ellis buries his disdain behind a veneer of rocking, glam-tastic fun in books like No Hero and The Authority, but others have been more overt in their agenda. There was Pat Mills outrageously damning Marshal Law, and Alan Moore’s genre-altering, cautionary tale; Watchmen, stemming from his desire to kiss the superhero concept goodnight. Even now, we have Garth Ennis’s ongoing series of out-of-control nasty superheroes, watched over and policed by his team of misfits in The Boys. Like all of these writers, Ellis uses his work to highlight the folly of deferring to others simply because we desire a hero so badly.

But where does this desire stem from? and what it is within us which creates this desire for a higher power?

Recently I visited a friend who lives alone. She said that she liked it when I went to bed after her, but she couldn’t put her finger on why. We came to the conclusion that it is because it is nice to have someone else turn out the lights and check that the door is locked, since those things are the kind of things we didn’t have to worry about when we were children. It is nice to go to sleep, knowing that someone else is on top of things, someone else is taking care of things. It is a holdover from childhood, when we thought that our parents would be able to handle everything and it didn’t all fall to us. Of course as we grow up, we are disillusioned and realize that our parents are human and eventually, we move out and we become the adults who have to worry about the mundanities of life.

Wanting someone else to be the adult so that we have someone to defer to is a kind of throwback to childhood. It is understandable, but it is also such a basic, primal desire that we often don’t recognize it, which makes it that much easier for others to exploit. By some definitions, religious organizations have been exploiting this desire for aeons, but it is the politicians in recent history who usually take advantage of our unconscious desire for a parental, authority figure.

This where the British satirists I mentioned above come in. These are all writers who came of an age in Britain under the Thatcher government, they are all all men who watched a country’s desire for a definitive authority figure become twisted and exploited by their elected government. The eighties was a strange time for the UK in many ways, and people tend to forget that it was an era of “me first” in the wake of the so-called “age of aquarius.” Watching capitalism run riot in a country like Britain, previously anchored by all manner of caring, nationally owned resources was shocking for many. Thatcher was the first female prime minister, and she immediately set about proving that she could be more aggressive and stubborn than any male leader. Unlike America, where presidents can only run for two terms, Thatcher ruled for total of nearly 11 years. To many people it felt like she would never let the country go from her iron grip, so it is any wonder that the British comic book writers who matured in that era don’t trust people in authority? By extension, the concept of the superhero must look like just another self-declared savior, like Thatcher in her time.

Douglas Adams wrote that no one who actually wants to be president should be allowed to be president, the ego involved in wanting the job disqualifies them from having the humility to do it well. Similarly, anyone who happily puts on a cape and declares them self to be superheroic must be suspect. Writers like Ellis, Moore, Mills, et al do an important job, reminding us that we hold the power to give away, even symbolically, and we must be conscious of who we’re giving it to. While their outlook of superheroes might be bleak, their cynicism reminds us to be wary of worshipping a golden calf. Gaudy, empty representations of authority can all too quickly become externalizations of the strength we ought to be looking to find within ourselves.

20 Comments

Thatcher and Regan thought it would be neat-o to isolate anyone with HIV on an island somewhere. Thatcher put cameras on every corner, privatized many social institutions that her generation enjoyed. And don’t forget how she deregulated the London Stock Exchange in lockstep with Regan’s deregulation of US stock markets. They gave birth to this lovely brand of “casino capitalism” that has our civilization swirling the drain. For these reasons and more, a whole generation of Brit’s felt cynicism was better than optimism. Being optimistic gets you screwed almost every time–being a cynic allows you to at least feel vindicated with the knowledge you saw all of this coming.

My passion for superheroes has never been connected to a desire for powerful authority figures outside of myself. And perhaps that is why I think the anti-superhero writers mostly miss the obvious point. I bet most superhero fans desire to be supermen themselves, instead of having supermen at hand to save them. The fantasy here is to be enpowered, not rescued.

I hate to admit that the stereotype is right, but there is a bit of truth to the notion that the people who like superheroes the most are the ones that feel most powerless and emasculated in real life. My own passion for all things superhero diminished in proportion to how much I started to get laid and felt more confident in myself as a man. I still enjoy superheroes, but now it’s just another sub-genre for me, that has good and bad stories just like any other sort of fiction.

Great post! Especially the quote at the end.

Eh. I always looked up to superheroes not as people who would protect me, but as something to aspire to be. To have that power and to be able to protect people, avert disasters, operate on a scale that makes things easier and better for a huge number of people.

To both Sonia Harris & Marc C,

I’ll begin with a quote from Reagan:

“It’s not that our friends on the left are ignorant, it is that so much of what they believe isn’t true”

Marc,

Let’s go thru your entry point by point:

Thatcher and Regan thought it would be neat-o to isolate anyone with HIV on an island somewhere.
- Please point to a definitive quote from a speech or policy paper that stated this. Does this include the Reagan’s having Rock Hudson ( one of the first public figures to suffer from AIDS) to the White House?

Thatcher put cameras on every corner,
- Um, No, that would be individual mayors of cities and by the way that boomed under Blair

privatized many social institutions that her generation enjoyed.
- People enjoy waiting in line for months for health care that is substandard by those with free market medicine?
- Is that why the rich/those with means in the UK (or any other country w/ socialized medicine) get on planes to come here for treatment?

And don’t forget how she deregulated the London Stock Exchange in lockstep with Regan’s deregulation of US stock markets.
- Your use of the term “deregulation” would imply that U.S. government regulatory bodies such as the SEC, FINRA, FIDIC were eliminated. They weren’t, they’re still here. And as demonstrated by the Madoff affair their ability to regulate the markets and identify fraud is questionable at best. Creating and fostering an atmosphere that supports the creation of new investment products and services in the financial services industry while encouraging the formulation of capital and confidence in the markets isn’t deregulation.

They gave birth to this lovely brand of “casino capitalism” that has our civilization swirling the drain.
- Completely wrong the single biggest piece of market deregulation in our lifetime was the repeal of Glass-Seagal (under Clinton) that removed the barrier for financial institutions to be both banks and brokerages which set the stage for the financial meltdown when coupled with the GOVERNMENT forcing banks to provide mortgages to individuals who could not repay them under threat from the same government.

For these reasons and more, a whole generation of Brit’s felt cynicism was better than optimism. Being optimistic gets you screwed almost every time–being a cynic allows you to at least feel vindicated with the knowledge you saw all of this coming.
- Glad to know you speak for an entire generation of Brit’s. Or are you just speaking for yourself as your not optimistic?

Sonia,

Could you please outline how “capitalism ran riot” in the UK during the Thatcher years? Exactly how many people starved to death in the streets?

The entire underlying premise of your piece is wrong. Thatcher’s (like Reagan’s) conservatism wasn’t authoritarian, in fact it’s rooted in the individual freedom and liberty. Yes, she was/is a strong woman who displayed her iron will on multiple occasions but Authoritarianism is a creature of the left (yes, sorry to break it to you) as it places the right of self determination and free will and substitutes it with an ever growing centralized government that controls more and more of the economy (and thus personal choice and individual
autonomy). Her policies were firmly against this diminishment of the individual for the gain of the state.

Lastly, Lady Thatcher did not “rule”, she served. If she were truly unpopular she wouldn’t have lasted 11 years.

Great article, Sonia.

“… no one who actually wants to be president should be allowed to be president, the ego involved in wanting the job disqualifies them from having the humility to do it well.”

Yeah, I’ve been saying that for thirty years. Anybody that desires that kind of power has deeply-rooted character defects. That kind of person is more similar to Hitler and Stalin than they are to you and me.

An interesting argument, Sonia. Respectfully, I believe that the British writers’ groundbreaking treatment of superheroes is more influenced by culture than politics. American culture celebrates the power and independence of the individual. A superhero is an individual who altruistically and anonymously works for the betterment of society, and the concept exists comfortably with America’s cultural trust in individuals. I believe this factor explains why the United States was the first nation to create the superhero genre, and why the country continues to be the genre’s biggest supporter. It is fascinating to review what the British writers, coming from a different culture, not so in awe of individualism, did with the genre.

Really good stuff here! Looking forward to reading more.

OS2 Nexus –

To this day, I can’t understand how anyone can say with a straight face that the Right is for individual freedom and all the authoritarianism is on the Left. Perhaps you redefine individual freedom as being “free” to be a Christian in monogamous marriage that takes no illicit drugs and reads no challenged books.

That’s because (sorry to break it to you) OS2 Nexus is so full of shit that he can’t even see straight.

I think that people like superheroes because they inspire us to be better. I remember an old issue of Spider-Man where some C-List villain (maybe the Gibbon or the Kangaroo) is trying to kill Spider-Man to boost his rep, then Doc Ock shows up. Doc Ock wants to fight Spider-Man uninterrupted so he knocks the c-lister off the building. Spider-Man jumps off the building and risks his life to save this guy who just a second ago tried to kill him. How many normal people would do that? The average person probably let the guy die, arguing that they weren’t responsible because they didn’t kill the guy. When I read that I was struck by the nobility of Spider-Man.

I think superheroes are so fantastic and other-worldly as a concept that the writers who try to make them too realistic or gritty miss the point. Even the darker heroes like Batman inspire us to be better. I wish I was as intelligent and as driven as Bruce Wayne, even though I have no desire to be a vigilante.

Is the Freud reference at the beginning of the post inspired my comment on your last post?

Rene: Because it’s true.

Ask anyone who lived under Stalin, or in East Germany prior to the reunification.

You delusion as to what the “right” is, is based on your twisted personal bigotry, based on a set of utopian principles that allow you to be led around by leftist “newspeak” like a blind sheep in a flock.

Much as how the left likes to delude itself that Fascism & Nazism were “Right-wing”, in fact they were every bit as socialist as Communism, with the same desire for a cult of personality and rule of a very small minority. The only difference was a distinction between supremacy of political party over others vs. a claim of superiority of their ethnicity over others.

Perhaps one day you might look us what the official name of the Nazis were – and look at such “right wing” policies as methamphetamine being issued to the German army (let alone the cocktails of drugs Hitler was on), and the Lebensborn program (which is about as much the antithesis to “christian monogamous” as you can get).

To paraphrase a famous movie

“There’s that word again… I don’t it means what you think it means.”

The notion that the woman who called for the release of Pinochet, one of the greatest human rights violators of the last century, is a proponent of individual freedom over authoritarian rule by the state is ludicrous on its face. Rene is right; there’s a type of conservatism that is very interested in freedom for a very narrowly defined, domestic majority group, regardless of what it costs anyone else.

Sonia,

I think Moore’s “V for Vendetta” is also worth mentioning because it seems directly inspired by visions of a Thatcheresque dystopia. And of course it might be the most influential comic series in the world thanks to the Guy Faulkes masks worn by Anonymous & co.

The notion that the woman who called for the release of Pinochet, one of the greatest human rights violators of the last century, is a proponent of individual freedom over authoritarian rule by the state is ludicrous on its face.

True that it is ludicrous to insist that anyone calling for the absolution of Pinochet’s crimes does not deserve to be called “a proponent of individual freedom over authoritarian rule”, but to call Pinochet “one of the greatest human rights violators of the last century” in a century that included Stalin, Mao, Hitler, Pol Pot, Tojo, Chiang Kai-Shek, Tito, Milosevic, Lenin, Saddam Hussein, the “Young Turks”, amongst others is sheer hyperbole. Pinochet was an amateur compared to these guys.

As a very conservative person, i don’t agree with much in the article & some of the comments left. However, i hate to see people calling each other names or other personal attacks. i think that this brings even more divisiveness to a process that already seperates us. i love to defend my position & point out where others on the other side are incorrect [according to me], but i wish we all would try to have more compassion for the person who has the viewpoint that we are against. After all, i want to change minds & hearts towards my side, not make enemies.

Danjack – You’re theme reminds me very much of the NY Times columnist David Brooks who goes to great pains to project a fair-minded image yet everything he writes is always thinly veiled by the numbers conservative dogma. I don’t think its fair to spend a paragraph saying you dislike divisiveness and want compassion and then end with you want everyone to agree with you. Don’t you see that wanting people to take your side IS divisive? That’s the problem! You are saying indirectly you don’t respect viewpoints other than your own!

I live in a city which is about as diverse as you can get in demographics and politics. I work closely with several wear it on their sleeve conservative folks. Its hard for people to work with them, as their politics encroach on even the most innocuous situations. So we cant just Google something, we look it up on “Al Gore’s Internet”. We don’t check the news sites, we see what the “Liberal Media” has to say. And on and on all day everyday. Perhaps unsurprisingly the need to constantly beat the party drum takes on a religious overtone like trying to convert non-believers. Even folks who agree with them are made to feel uncomfortable. I don’t throw my personal worldview in their face, but they sure throw theirs in mine. I have never heard a single non-conservative so brazenly inject their personal beliefs into the workplace in this manner.

The point of all this, if you are serious about wanting to improve the quality of dialog, you might want to start with your conservative peers first.

Whether one thinks Thatcher was an arch-villain or one of Britain’s great leaders, the point of the article is how writers like Moore, Mills, Ellis, and Ennis viewed her government and how that influenced how they approached the superhero genre. On that level, it’s an interesting piece of interpretive work– it certainly seems to be a view that Ellis buys into judging by his “Vertigo Issue” of Planetary.

Whether these authors’ perceptions of Thatcher were fair-minded is quite another discussion.

Curious how many people here don’t buy the shit from either end of the left/right paradigm?
9/11 and 7/7 have shown unequivocally the nature of power is much different than what we are taught in compulsory thought management factories better known as public education.

New information causes the wise to revisit their assumptions of how reality (political and otherwise) actually functions.

I commend the creators of the comic “The Big Lie” for utilizing the medium to become super heroic themselves in taking on one of the most massive and destructive lies we collectively are charged with facing. That being the sacred myth of 9/11 as having been planned and executed by al quaeda. Anyone who has made any time to study the evidence as brought forward by over 1,600 Architects and Engineers for 9/11 truth and countless other government insiders and whistleblowers would obviously understand the cynicism present in the work of modern authors. Anyone who has seen Building 7 fall into itself at free fall velocities indistinguishable from gravity for over 100 feet (8 stories) has to know the immensity of “The Big Lie” and is working to utilize whatever media means are available to counter such a disgusting illusion.

Left nor Right care for Freedom really. They are double talking servants of the elite and are not to be trusted. There are a few politicians who are willing to accurately understand our situation and speak out regarding the various banking cartels that dominate our economic lives.

Please if you are unaware make the time to study the following material and then proceed with any questions or concerns you may have. I’m not here for a flame war but am available for rational and cogent discussion of the true state of affairs.

rememberbuilding7.org
ae911truth.org
See the film “America from Freedom to Fascism”.

Thank you and God Speed (Super hero speed?)

I don’t know why, but I feel a lot happier getting involved in political discussion that starts this way.

Firstly, Thatcher did deregulate, if you consider deregulation to be taking a system of more regulation and making it less regulated. You might think of the current state as the norm, and so deregulation is about destroying all regulation, but she did all kinds of stuff: Allowing banks and mutual societies to take on shareholders in ways that totally changed their responsibilities, creating really dodgy oppertunities to get rich at the expense of long term stability, leading directly to all kinds of economic dodgyness.

She also took on a series of economic policies specifically focused on sorting out the £ without any consideration of it’s effects on normal people, denying all responcibility for the logical consequences of her actions. She wanted inflation down, who cares who dies because of it (and of course people did die, and communities lost their hope and ability to sustain themselves).

Her passion for getting the wrong sort of things out of public management, and out of her sphere of responsibility, meant that things got carved up into competing private companies in a way that caused massive waste and inefficiency, and caused lots of raised fees for things that got worse. She also shut down government industries for not being sufficiently profitable, when the people who worked there had a long history of successfully run community owned businesses of serious complexity and scope, and who wanted to keep them running.

But that did not fit her picture of the world, in which everyone owns their own house and shares in a private company. Her priority was private ownership, with no consideration of the stresses that people in poor comunities can be under, that can force them to sell even things that are dear to them, let alone shares in a nationalised company. And so all her reforms combined to give people a chance at wealth they could not afford to take up, and many ways to make them poorer.

She thought of herself as a dragon slayer, and easy problems or big things to fight fired her imagination, but she always showed total ignorance of the subtle problems that she was creating, like setting people against each other who had worked together for decades, with incentives for screwing each other over that made it hard to trust, and most importantly, she always took protest, and alternative expression to be “disorder” to be cleaned up, and responded to those who went on strike or as if they were enemies of the country, in modern speak, she considered them terrorists.

Her actions were always confrontational and focused on the purity of her own ideas, she did not listen to criticism, and only heard treasonous attacks in people’s anger. If she could have flown around hitting “bureaucracy” “inflation” “the EU” “unions” and the IRA with superpunches rather than running a country, I think she would have been a lot happier. She was alway more focused on what she was holding out against, what she was destroying, than what she was trying to build, and she did an awful lot of that.

There were a few subtleties about how she operated, “simplifying” things by creating a set of simple local units, rather than the complicated messes of local authorities. But to do this, she set up centralised bodies with vast amounts of control that each of the small localised units had no leverage to work against. It sounded like freedom and simplicity, it looked like divide and conquor. In this new system each local unit could be given it’s orders, and couldn’t do much about it, because of the huge gap she had instituted between the levels of control, and they certainly didn’t have time to listen to all those hundreds of departments, they had their mission to get on with of continuing the transformation.

In this kind of way, she behaved a lot like the criticisms of superheroes, who destroy every dictatorship but the one they cannot see, because it is the one created by their own power.

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