Thursday, February 28, 2013

Marcuse and the Comedian

            When putting modern popular culture into context with Marcuse’s philosophy, it is difficult to not gravitate toward chapter three where he discusses warriors and prostitutes as essential characters to question a society’s morals. This idea applies perfectly to the recent, largely cinematic innovation (if not innovation, then perfection) of the anti-hero.
            Batman, as he exists in the Christopher Nolan trilogy is typically what people think of when tossing around the label, anti-hero. They’re right to do so. Christian Bale’s Batman/Bruce Wane fits the idea to a tee. He selflessly accepts his role as society’s savior while willing receiving no recognition even unto his “death.” His powers cause him a large amount of distress as they strip him of the right to live the life he wants. Basically, he is a brooding, depressed, and ultimately flawed yet dutiful hero who is far more human than previous generations of superheroes were allowed to be. Recent years have been chocked full of anti-heroes in film, some more successful than others. The problem with the intellectual complexity usually ascribed to them (not that they don’t have powerful lessons to teach us) is that they tend to rely on and archetypal super villain to fully realize their academic potential. The only one who is capable of functioning completely on his own as being a hero, villain, and a figure to cast society’s morals into doubt is the Comedian from The Watchmen.
            To be clear, I am not using the Comedian from graphic novel but, rather, from the movie as it is more applicable to modern society than the book.
            On the surface, the Comedian is the all-American, tough guy, superhero that everyone knows all too well. He is big and muscular, dispenses a simple, almost black and white form of justice, and works hand in hand with the government. That said, it does not take much digging to realize his far more sinister nature. He is pathologically cynical, indiscriminately violent, nihilistic, and, above all else, a sociopath. Adrian Veidt, one of his former cohorts even goes so far as to describe him as a Nazi. While Veidt’s observation is not without its merits, it is a bit too simplistic. Calling the Comedian a Nazi implies an otherness to American society. But this cannot be as the Comedian, by the time of his death was operating as a paramilitary agent for the government. Additionally, he fought with Dr. Manhattan in Vietnam and has made a name capturing (often killing) criminals who violate American laws. Upon examination, any conclusion other than that he is an agent of American ideals is flawed.
            Enter Herbert Marcuse. In chapter three of One Dimensional Man, he writes:
And in the literature, this other dimension is represented not by the religious. Spiritual. Moral heroes (who often sustain the established order) but rather by such disruptive characters as the artist. The prostitute. The adulteress. The great criminal and outcast, the warrior. The rebel-poet. The devil.
(Marcuse, Ch. 3)

By citing such examples as the rebel-poet, the warrior, the prostitute, and so forth, he means that the literature (and by extension, art?) of a society is defined by those characters who call its morality to question and at least attempt to keep it honest.
 The Comedian fits into this idea so well because he fights for the American cause, something that we are all conditioned to see as universally right, no matter what. Take, for example, his actions in Vietnam. After the war’s end, he is in a bar, celebrating with Dr. Manhattan when a pregnant Vietnamese woman whom he has presumably been having a war-time affair with approaches him. She tells him that, now that the war is over, it is time to plan for the next stage of their lives. In response, he scoffs, “There’s nothing to talk about. See, I’m leaving. I’m gonna forget about your horrible, sweaty, little piece of shit country. In understandable anger, she breaks a bottle and cuts his face, declaring, “You will remember. You will remember me and my country forever.” It is important to remember that, in the context of the story, America has won in Vietnam. It is because of this that the Comedian serves as the perfect representation of the American attitude. America has accomplished its goal of keeping Communism out of Vietnam and enough people have died. Both the Comedian’s and America’s intertwined goals have come to fruition. Now, with the war over, the Comedian, like America, simply wants to leave without picking up the pieces of what they have destroyed. Her pregnancy is representative of the fact that America is leaving Vietnam in a more problematic state than it was in before the war. This does not matter to the Comedian and America, by extension. He sees the end to the war as an end to his responsibility. The gash on his face is thus mimetic of the idea that, though the war is a scar on America’s face, the shame is the only consequence they will ever have to endure.
The Comedian is a satire of America’s imperialism. He is figure cloaked in the pretense of justice but who, in reality, is twisted beyond anyone’s wildest imagination. Before his moral comeuppance and subsequent death, he uses sadistic, passionless violence to further America’s interests both at home and abroad. He is an extreme example of what Marcuse would consider character used to call a society’s morals into question but perhaps that is why he does the job so effectively. 


Karen Knutson said...


Your first and second paragraph don't meld well with the rest of your essay. I felt like I didn't really know what I was getting into from the first paragraph, and I was confused about your switch from batman to the watchmen. I think if you used marcuse a little bit more to analyze the difference inbetween batman and the comedian, it would have made a better cohesion.

It may also be an interesting to drop batman all together and analyze the differences of the Comedian through Marcuse from the movie and the comic books. I have no clue if there are major differences, but if you want to revise this it could be interesting to show the character from multiple fiction sources.

Also I find this sentence "The only one who is capable of functioning completely on his own as being a hero, villain, and a figure to cast society’s morals into doubt is the Comedian from The Watchmen." should be bumped to the first paragraph and just use that with an analysis of marcuse. .

Adam said...

Jackson - For the first several paragraphs, I find your direction problematic. Claiming Batman as an anti-hero isn't as obvious as you make it out to be (example: he's not as dark or conflicted as John Wayne's character in *The Searchers*, despite all the dark symbolism circulating around him). But this claim isn't even relevant, because you're really writing about the Comedian. Do that, then, rather than starting with the Batman!

I know the graphic novel, not the film (my sister, also a fan of Alan Moore, told me not to bother when she saw it, so I haven't). But I find your claim that if the Comedian is an agent of American values he cannot therefore be a Nazi rather troubling. For many (most?) Americans for a very long time, racial injustice was a core American *ideal*. To put it another way: to many leftists, America has always harbored its own version of fascism, and even treasured it. And Alan Moore is not American, but a British leftist!

Your reading of the Comedian's role in Vietnam (doesn't he kill her in the graphic novel, or do I misremember?) is quite good, and if anything seems in line with the idea that fascism can be true-blue American. But I'm a little confused about what it has to do with Marcuse. The parts aren't melding for me here, even if the individual paragraphs have interesting things to say.

In the last paragraph - in which you accurately assess the comedian as a satire on American imperialism - things are beginning to click for me. What's missing here, I think, is that for Marcuse the disruptive character is not a depiction of the world as it is, but some attempt to articulate an alternative to that world.

Example: Don Quixote. Now, Don Quixote is assuredly a satire, but many readers - surely most modern readers - also take him as as incarnating a positive set of values opposed to the petty greed and stupidity around him. He is a satire, but one pointing to something more/other. Is the Comedian?

I tend to think not, *but* there is one critical thing you're omitting here. The one special thing about the Comedian is that he gave himself his name: he *knows* he's a satire, which gives him at least a little more depth. Can you do anything with that?

Overall: This was a bit of a mess (it started slow, and your use of Macuse seems awkward/incomplete) but is moving in interesting directions.