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Let Freedom Reign

This is a republication of a column I wrote for SequArt.com, back when they were still hosting scholarly content. It is reprinted here almost exactly as it was there--I am not updating any of the ideas, links, etc., but have silently corrected a few spelling and grammatical errors.

Originally published at Sequart.com on May 24, 2007

Let Freedom Reign

Ted: Miss Lang,you are the Batman’s most vocal supporter. How can you condone behavior that’s so blatantly illegal? What about due process—civil rights?

Lana: We live in the shadow of crime, Ted, with the unspoken understanding that we are victims—of fear, of violence, or social impotence. A man has risen to show us that the power is, and always has been, in our hands. We are under siege—he’s showing us that we can resist.

Ted: Lana—you haven’t exactly answered my question…

The Dark Knight Returns, p.66.
Overshadowed as it was by Marvel’s Civil War, Kaare Andrews’ Spider-Man: Reign has yet to be widely discussed. In fact, all discussion of the title has seemed to boil down to three issues: First, the controversial full-frontal shot of the geriatric Peter Parker; Second, the death of Mary-Jane Parker from cancer brought on by contact with Peter’s bodily fluids (as one reviewer put it, “Well, I didn’t see THAT death of Mary-Jane coming. No pun intended.”); And finally, the much-touted (but rarely thought through) comparison to Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns. All three of these issues revolve around a central feature of the story: this is Andrews’s attempt at a so-called “deconstruction” of Spider-Man. I’ll come back to this point shortly, but first allow me to say a few words about the comparisons between Reign and The Dark Knight Returns.

Andrews makes it clear that Reign is intended to echo TheDark Knight Returns; the central idea of an aged version of the title character “returning” to his title role after a prolonged period of absence; the prominent use of television personalities (one of whom is even named “Miller Janson”) to advance the narrative; and the “grim-and-gritty” ambience all explicitly call TDKR to mind. Furthermore, as Wikipedia notes, Marvel used the comparison to help promote the book (citing Kevin Huxford’s Newsarama review). If one bothers to make anything but a superficial comparison, however, this much-hyped connection (the MillarWorld thread on Reign goes so far as to dub it “The Dark Spider Returns,” with one poster quipping, “Pick up your copy of the Dark Knight returns and draw Spider-Man's head over Batman's.”) doesn’t hold much water. In fact, Reign might almost be considered the inverse of Miller’s dark epic. In Dark Knight, America is run by an impotent government, where politicians pass the buck to avoid taking responsibility or looking foolish. In Reign, by contrast, New York is run by a seemingly all-powerful fascist government, whose shock-troops run the city through martial law. Further, recall that even when the government declares martial law to keep the peace in the later part of Dark Knight, it is grossly ineffective in comparison with the Gotham martial law enforced by Batman and his gang of former Mutants. Not only will Spider-Man not declare his own martial law in Reign, he also steps into the traditional “hero” role of opposing such an un-American, unjust use of force. In Dark Knight, crime has run rampant through Gotham, and Batman chooses to return when his anger can no longer be suppressed or ignored. In Reign, crime has been completely eliminated (fascists, it must be said, run a tight ship), and far from choosing to return, Peter Parker is goaded into taking up his Spider-Man role again by a combination of former antagonists (first J.J. Jameson, and then later Dr. Octopus). Dark Knight’s media is actually an interesting balance of voices (Lana Lang supporting Bats, government spokespersons remaining as noncommittal as possible, and the persons-on-the-street expressing various stupid opinions), whereas in Reign it is nothing but a tool of the fascists in City Hall. And, perhaps most significantly, in Dark Knight Batman’s encounter with his “rogues gallery” is only a build-up to the main event; Harvey Dent’s return to his Two Face persona mirrors Wayne’s return to Batman (and gives the newly-resurrected Caped Crusader a mission to stretch his legs), and the Joker returns to his villainy only in response to the stimulus of Batman. Meanwhile, the center of the story revolves around Batman’s co-opting of The Mutants as a paramilitary crime fighting force and his consequential confrontation with government forces over the control of legitimate violence. Reign again reverses this logic: Spider-Man’s gallery of rogues is the true force behind the evil government, and—rather than a reaction brought on by his sudden return—Spidey’s clash with city hall at the climax of the story turns out to be the very reason for the existence of the fascist government: the entire plot has been set in motion by the Venom symbiote, who is still bitter over his rejection by Parker some years back. Martial law functions here, not as an attempt to make superheroes unnecessary, but as a temper tantrum designed to gain their attention.

In fact, in its attempt to depict an evil government secretly run by supervillains as the antagonist driving the plot, Reign might seemingly be better compared to The Dark Knight Strikes Again, Miller’s 2001-2 sequel to The Dark Knight Returns. Here, at least, we have some common ground: Strikes Again features a popular-but-sinister government, in which the elected officials are actually a front for super-villains (in this case, Lex Luthor and Brainiac). And, superficially at least, both plots follow the title-hero’s return (albeit again, in Batman’s case) to take down the government and initiate both a fresh start and the return of capes-and-tights heroes. Here again, though, the comparisons come up short: Miller, ever the deconstructionist, pokes fun at the idea that the return of heroes might “put the genie back in the bottle” or “reconstruct” the super hero form (“God, that is so Silver Age?” as Wonder Chick says in issue 3). By the end of his tale, the super villains have been defeated, but the specter of fascism is hardly banished: Superman, worshipped as a god (Bate-mite wisely remarks, “Put your hand in the hand of the man with the heat vision.”), asks Lara, “What exactly shall we do with our planet?” Green Arrow and The Question publicly debate Marxist versus Neo-Conservative ideology, and the government and parts of the media join hands in declaring the newly-returned superheroes illegitimate. By contrast, it makes Jameson’s final speech in Reign (“The city is no longer safe. Masked youths have returned to the streets. Muggings, rape and murder are again around every corner. Curfew laws have been abandoned and people like me are allowed to have a voice again. No, we’re not safe. None of us. The “super-terrorists” are loose again. God bless ‘em.”) seem downright Golden Age in its optimism: the return of the “super hero fights criminal” status quo is a return to freedom, democracy, and the American Way.

What these comparisons make clear, however, is exactly where Reign fails. Andrews’ portrayal of fascism seems naïve, his use of the “media talking heads” is oversimplified, and his so-called “deconstruction” of Spider-Man is in fact the opposite: it’s an overly-optimistic attempt to reconstruct the figure of the super-hero. Let’s take the last of these claims first, returning to the point I made in the first paragraph. Sebastian Mercier’s review of Reign on the SpiderFan.org website was but one of several I saw which explicitly linked Andrews’ “Dark Knight” take on Spider-Man with a “deconstruction” of the character. In his second issue review he writes:
Andrews makes no apologies that he is trying to get at an essential truth about Spider-Man's character. He does this by challenging the core concepts of Spider-Man. Responsibility has always been Spider-Man's modus operandi. It is up to him to regain that sense of responsibility if he hopes to save a city that has gone into social, cultural, and political decay.
We must immediately ask: in what sense is this a “deconstruction”? While I cannot argue that Mercier accurately sums up the major thrust of Parker’s character arc, on its own this amounts to little more than a rehashing of previous Spider-Man storylines (certainly the “Spider-Man: No More!” storyline from Amazing Spider-Man #50 springs to mind, along with its retelling in Raimi’s film Spider-Man 2). Has the character here been deconstructed? Hardly! This is simply a reassertion of exactly what Spider-Man has always claimed to be: a morality play about the “responsible” use of power for the greater good. Spider-Man, and indeed super heroes in general are portrayed unambiguously as a benevolent force for freedom and justice. Indeed, by the end Andrews is even able to have Spider-Man kill his enemies without any ethical/political issues being raised! Not only does Andrews not reveal any hidden logic at the heart of the Spider-Man character, he steadfastly ignores the issues which have already been raised by the mid-80s super hero deconstruction movement!

The oversimplifying trend inherent in Andrews’s treatment of his protagonist carries through in his engagement with the media. As mentioned, the talking heads of Reign’s New York are unabashedly enthusiastic supporters of the fascist governing powers (and, furthermore, not very intelligent). It seems that all media in Andrews’s dystopian future is a Disney-meets-Fox News performance: all the spin of Bill O’Reilly, with none of the fury-cum-righteous indignation. We need look no further than Dark Knight Strikes Again for a more nuanced critique of the media: in Miller’s dystopia, the media isn’t so much monological as it is simply self-canceling. Yes, here too everything is a performance, but rather than insipid cheerleaders of the powers that be, Miller’s media functions to talk everything to death, so that in fact nothing gets heard at all. Jimmy Olsen’s attempts to reveal the huge conspiracy behind government power is marginalized, not by state censorship, but because the government understands that—as Lex Luthor sinisterly observes in issue#1—“Freedom of speech is a wonderful thing—so long as nobody’s listening.” Again, Andrews’ attempts at Big Government Conspiracy seem oversimplified by comparison.

All of this leads us, then, to my central objection to Spider-Man: Reign: its representation of fascism (with its obvious attempt to critique the current political situation) is perniciously naïve. Allow me to conclude by briefly fleshing out this claim in light of the above exposition. Mercier, this time in his review of issue #3, writes, “Mayor Waters may be an idealistic fool but he isn't truly evil. Reign tells us that men only choose to follow evil.” Again Mercier misses most of the theoretical substance (he thinks that the Venom plot-point serves as a novel twist on an otherwise straightforwardly DarkKnight storyline), but correctly interprets Andrews’s central message: fascism is the result of an evil plot (super villains at their Manichean peak), which must be opposed by a return to heroic action (Spider-Man, and his Amazing Friends). In the middle are the naïve, the idealistic, and the innocent bystanders, who will follow whatever lead they are given. In other words: we humans are not responsible for the horrors of fascism, we are simply the unwitting dupes in the plans of supernaturally evil beings.

In what sense is Andrews’s naïveté “pernicious” here, though? Far from critiquing the Bush administration, Andrews nicely replicates its logic of Evil Fascists versus Good Heroes. And while he rightly points out that the willingness to trade civil liberties for security is the driving force behind complicity with authoritarian regimes, Andrews’s solution is likewise far too simple: heroic action can provide us a fresh start. Illegitimate violence is unambiguously portrayed as a liberating force, albeit one reserved for people with remarkable talents (should we be surprised, then, that ultimately the heroic child turns out to have a super power of her own?). Reign ends up simultaneously suggesting that we are blameless for our own powerlessness (it is an evil plot by supervillains) and blaming us for our complicity in it (the city has “given away everything because it doesn’t have the guts to fight!”); it suggests that we must take back our power if we want to be free (something even an army ofchildren can apparently decide to do), even as it shows us that such power can only actually be won by people who already have powers (the only child who actually does anything is the one who can turn to stone; Sandman and Spider-Man are the ones who end up defeating Venom and his WEBB system). Again, it’s obvious that Andrews is no big fan of the Bush administration, but one cannot help but see his morality play re-enacting the logic behind the Iraq War: people can be liberated by force; a benevolent power can fight their battles for them, and freedom and democracy can be given as gifts by a conquering force. In the end, in fact, it is precisely the re-assertion of this paternal authority Andrews leaves us with: Spider-Man has taken up his role once again, reclaimed his duty to protect the weak (i.e., fight their battles for them). “I’ll see you one day, M.J.” he says. “Until then…I have responsibilities.”

Look out! Here comes the Spider-Man.

--Matt Lampert

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