Master Of The Obvious: Issue #104

Thu, July 26th, 2001 at 12:00am PDT

Comic Books
Steven Grant, Columnist

Trimmed down, all existentialism basically means is this: human beings have no inborn destiny.

Of course, we're subtly raised to believe in destiny. History is presented by every culture as destiny, as long as it's on the winning side. America in the 1800s was swept by Manifest Destiny, the notion the United States would inevitably sweep across the continent from sea to shining sea. That we did it makes it easier in hindsight to believe it was destiny, but a study of history shows the thousands of little errors, blunders, coincidences and bits of luck that worked out just so. (Which, in fact, some people take as proof of destiny. How could they work out just so, without a great hand guiding them?) In hindsight, we rewrite events as destiny. Abraham Lincoln was destined to free the slaves. Lincoln was a confirmed abolitionist, but he also believed slavery couldn't be abolished without consent of the governed, and abolition wasn't of major widespread concern even in the North – until some Southern genius, trying to counter the legislated inability of slavery to spread to the Western territories, put forth the proposition that slavery was the natural state of all poor (which is to say: not rich) people, regardless of color. The idea was to win over Northern industrialists facing their own labor troubles in the form of irritating trade unions, but the proposition galvanized abolitionist sentiment in the North, particularly among labor activists. It was on the strength of this support that Lincoln was able to issue the Emancipation Proclamation – and that was two years after the affected states had already seceded from the Union, so they didn't have to listen to him anyway. At least until the Civil War ended.

We view wars as destiny. The emergence of the USA as the sole power in the Western hemisphere following the Spanish-American War, as a major player on the world stage following World War I, as a superpower and an empire of sorts in World War II are all viewed as destiny: the destiny of a great nation. It was America's destiny to put a man on the moon first, even if we had to play catch up with the Russians to pull it off. It's easy to spot destiny in hindsight: the hand that has blessed every endeavor. At least when history falls on your side. When it doesn't, history is no longer destiny. Myth is destiny. Save your Confederate money, boys, the South shall rise again! You don't often hear the asskicking America took in Vietnam referred to as destiny, but weren't our "triumphs" in Granada and Kuwait posited as evidence we'd "reclaimed our destiny"? I remember Reagan claiming it was our "destiny" to "triumph" in "the war on drugs" even as his own people were cutting deals with trafficantes to fund their own schemes, and 16+ years on the "war" is less won than ever (despite my loathing for Steven Soderburgh's TRAFFIC, it at least got that point across) but the political myth that it's our destiny to win it is repeated over and over. If we follow the rules, God will return us to the Promised Land. Dance the Ghost Dance and the White Man will be wiped out, and you'll live forever in peace and prosperity. Arthur still sleeps on the island across the lake to return in the hour of Britain's greatest need. (That was him downing a pint at the Jolly Skiff during the Blitz, wunnit?)

For the last 30 years, destiny has been a big component of comics. How many times has it turned out to be a character's "destiny," the one thing he was created for, to do this or that, to step forward and win the day against impossible odds? In wrestling, this is called cheap heat. It's an attempt to invest creations with a pseudo-religious mock-importance; it's stacking the deck. It's so overused it doesn't work very well anymore.

[Punisher]This is one reason I've always liked The Punisher. The Punisher doesn't have a destiny. I don't think The Punisher would even believe in destiny. The Punisher is an existentialist.

Kierkegaard, called the father of existentialism, played up the absurdity of human existence, stating the only way to combat this was the total commitment of the individual to a life of his choosing, and though Kierkegaard, still a child of his time, ultimately fell back on the abject acceptance of Christianity (which he also seemed to feel was incomprehensible) as the only valid course of action, the "life of total commitment" certainly fits The Punisher. Heidegger, who took Kierkegaard's philosophy further, comes even closer to describing The Punisher: since we can never hope to understand why we're here, if there's even anything to understand, the individual should choose a goal and pursue it wholeheartedly, despite the certainty of death and the meaninglessness of action. That's sure the Punisher as I conceived him: a man who knows he's going to die and who knows in the big picture his actions will count for nothing, but who pursues his course because this is what he has chosen to do.

Then there's the existentialism of Sartre. (Keep in mind that various philosophies are lumped together as "existentialist," including Nietzsche's, and the term has to be redefined with each philosopher you approach. Which is fitting, actually.) According to Sartre, things fall into two categories: where essence precedes existence, and where existence precedes essence. If, for instance, you build a chair, that chair didn't exist before you built it, but the idea of it did. Its essence pre-existed its existence. It was built with a specific function in mind; its destiny is to be sat on. A human being, on the other hand, comes into the world without essence (if you reject Predeterminism, anyway). Having no specific purpose, each human being must choose their own course of action; not choosing is also a choice.

So you've got this guy, Frank Castle. He has believed in destiny. He has done the patriotic thing, signed up for a horrific, chaotic war. (Aren't they all?) He has married and had children. He's a churchgoer, not so much because he believes strongly but because that's what people do. He has bought into the 50s myth of a good job, and a nice family, and a house in the suburbs with two cars, and he has spent his life doing, from his perspective, the right thing.

And it's all taken away from him in a flash, in a place where he and his family should have been safe. He's tossed from the myth of destiny into a chaotic existential universe.

It's at that moment that Frank Castle ceases to exist. That guy he was before, that guy isn't him anymore. He lies in a hospital bed, coping with the death of his family by shutting himself off from them. Shutting himself off from emotion. On a subconscious level, he's seething with emotion. On any level even remotely resembling conscious, he's cold. Ice cold. Mike Zeck and I tried to play with this, particularly in the graphic novel RETURN TO BIG NOTHING, where The Punisher's reactions are visually very striking – grit teeth, flaring eyes, clenched jaw – and the captions representing his reactions are very cool and methodical.

Heroes in comics tend to be intrinsically heroic, something that, as I've mentioned before, never quite clicked with me. Heroism appears at the intersection of opportunity and personality, and it's not stable. Someone who does something heroic under one set of circumstances might behave otherwise under other circumstances. There are plenty of heroes in the world, but why the need to postulate Heroes? Unless you're postulating a myth to go with them? Thus the Fantastic Four get irradiated and devote their lives to helping mankind. The Flash gets hit by a lightning bolt and devotes his life to helping mankind. Etc. Their heroic essence precedes their heroic existence.

But that's not The Punisher. When Frank Castle stops being Frank Castle, he doesn't become The Punisher right away. The Punisher is something he invents, something he chooses to be. His goals aren't heroic. They aren't even vengeful, any more than a surgeon declares revenge on a tumor. The Punisher sees a world that has never existed – that 50s world of happy families going on picnics in the park and not even bothering to lock their doors, that happy time – and decides he's going to try to make it so. He's not stupid. He's not insane. He's readopting a role Vietnam made him familiar with: point man. A point man is the guy who walks out ahead of the platoon to spot potential trouble and draw enemy fire so the platoon knows where to shoot. There are three types a point men: lucky ones, the ones who develop a sort of personal radar for danger, and dead ones. The real job of the point man is to get shot. The Punisher knows this. He knows there's no platoon, no army following him. He knows the likeliest scenario is that he'll get shot. He'll die. He knows this. He knows he'll likely achieve nothing of note regardless of how many people he kills because (as noted in the first Punisher miniseries, CIRCLE OF BLOOD) whatever void opens up due to his actions others will rush to fill. But he does it anyway because this is what he has chosen to do, and he knows it needs doing, regardless of the outcome. Whether anyone else sees it that way or not. So he'll keep doing it as long as he can and if he dies that was always part of the deal anyone. Everyone dies.

Now that's an existentialist. It's too bad comics are so hung up on destiny, which suggests an implicate order to the universe. But chaos is much more interesting, with much greater room for character, and the panoply of human response. In comics, Heroes expect to win. It's what drives them: if they stay the course and hold their chins high, and fight the good fight, they'll be rewarded with victory because it's their due. And, sure, maybe there's a little doubt, maybe some sacrifice, but doesn't it always work out that way? The Punisher knows sooner or later he's going to lose, that "good" fights mean nothing, that the only thing he truly has to look forward to is death. And he does it anyway.

The last word on how to live a writer's life, since some in San Diego asked:

1) It's okay to be a little early. Don't be very early. It makes you look desperate, and, worse, they'll quickly come to expect it. Try to arrive at the last possible moment before you're actually late. But never look hurried. This goes for appointments as well as assignments.

2) You'll write more if you get up early to write than if you stay up late to write. This is unfair but true. Give up wild late night while you're writing and get plenty of sleep, then write while you're fresh. If you must have late nights, set aside a day or two a week for it, though splitting up your sleep patterns like that will inevitably destroy your health.

3) You are a pawn of corporate interests because Coca-Cola is your best friend. Contrary to popular myth, do not drink alcohol while you work. Alcohol is a depressant. You need stimulants, not depressants, and – apologies to Jools Burchill – preferably none that cause permanent damage to internal organs. Which pretty much leaves caffeine. Coca-Cola's better than coffee or tea because it won't give you mouth or throat cancer (scalding liquids can do that) and the burst of sugar will get you going until the caffeine kicks in. DO NOT start your day with caffeine. Start with some sort of juice (not apple juice; it's pure sugar, and you need vitamins as well). That'll get you going. Save the Coca-Cola for later in the day when you don't feel like writing anymore. That's when you need the jumpstart.

4) It's more important to be finished than it is to be good. It's more important to be good than it is to be finished. Get it done first, and then worry about how good it is. There's nothing so bad you can't go back and improve it. That's what rewriting is for.

San Diego was great this year: very active and lots of productive discussions with both comics editors and film producers. Publishers, having played out the tried and true, seem more open than ever to new things, and though they still cling to superpeople, those superpeople seem to be taking on stranger and stranger aspects. Among the people it was particularly great to see: Lisa Hawkins, Bob Schreck, Howard Chaykin, Harris Miller, John Nee, Dan Mishkin and Tom Mandrake (look for their book CREEPS, out from Image this fall), Ross Richie, Matt Haley, Scott Shaw, Dave Olbrich, Scott Rosenberg, Chris Gore, Ron Wells, Steve Lieber, Dan Brereton, Scott Benefiel, Charlie Adlard, Mike Mignola, Jim Lee, Rob Beddard, Adi Tantimedh (sorry I was so burned out by the time you got there, Adi), Dave Gibbons, Jonathan Vankin, Dan Evans, Jonah Weiland, Tommy Lee Edwards (whose brilliant art hasn't been at all well served by comics coloring and publication), Matthew Clark, Mark Verheiden, Thierry Mornet and John Leyman. Much thanks to Matt Idelson for breakfast and a great chat, and thanks in particular to Larry Young and Mimi Rosenheim of AIT/PlanetLar Books for giving me run of their booth as a base of operations, as well as providing soft drinks and snacks, burying me under a slew of graphic novels and providing an Astronauts In Trouble Channel 7 baseball cap so I could shield my face and head from the sun at Disneyland on Monday. (The baseball caps, by the way, are way cool and available from the AIT/PlanetLar webstore.) (You can also buy full sized NASA spacesuit replicas from them. Mimi wore one throughout the show, and it looked unbelievable, though that could've just been Mimi.) Also giving me trade paperbacks: Les Humanoids' Dave Olbrich (METABARONS); Steve Lieber (two volumes of WHITEOUT available from Oni Press); Dan Brereton (NOCTURNALS: BLACK PLANET, also available from Oni Press); and Avatar's William Christensen, who gave me the trade paperback of Warren Ellis' STRANGE KISS. Thanks, guys. And thanks to all the readers of this column who came up to say hello. I'm sure there are many other people I've forgotten, but the I'd hoped to meet Joe Casey, but he successfully dodged me, though I still like what he's doing on Wildstorm's WILDC.A.T.S and I'm interested to see what he does when the book goes "mature" later this year.

I'm also ready to dive into a pile of projects as a result of the show, so...

Question Of The Week: what do you plan to do for cheap entertainment next Wednesday?

This is the final edition of MASTER OF THE OBVIOUS. As some of you correctly guessed, the plan was to run two years, and those two years end today. I'm in negotiations with Larry Young to collect the columns in one or two books, probably next year. Thanks for everyone's support and even criticisms these last couple years.

But if you can't live without a weekly dose, fear not. For the next six weeks or so, we'll be in annotated reruns, commenting on how things have changed since the columns were first run. Then, sometime in September, I'll be starting a new column, PERMANENT DAMAGE, to replace MOTO with, with a new and different angle. Until then, dream on: we still have a chance to get it right.

Whatever questions you might have about me can probably be answered with a quick trip to Steven Grant's Alleged Fictions. You can also express your own views at the Master Of The Obvious Message Board, or send me mail. Bear in mind that while I read all my mail, time constrains me from replying in most cases. Thanks.

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