Archive | November 11, 2007

Bow to the Idol

First there was fussing and fuming because Barack Obama didn’t want to wear a U.S. flag pin. Now there’s more fussing and fuming because Obama didn’t put his hand over his heart during the State Loyalty Oath Pledge of Allegiance.

Obama and the flag Now I’m no great fan of Obama – who’s not the peace candidate he pretends to be – but how refreshing it is to see a candidate not going along with the flag-worship that prevails so tiresomely throughout this country!

During my recent trip to Poland I was struck by the fact that I saw only two Polish flags the entire time I was in the country. What a relief. In the U.S., American flags are in your face aggressively, everywhere. And the whole thing is one big use/mention confusion, like promising people life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness and then giving them a shiny sticker that says “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness” instead.

Back to the Source

I’m looking forward to the imminent release of volume three of the four-volume Fourth World Omnibus, collecting Jack Kirby’s groundbreaking saga of the New Gods. (I’ve already got the first two, and the fourth volume is due out in March.) Kirby loomed large in my childhood comics reading, and his work has an insane energy and inventiveness that manages to redeem the somewhat stilted dialogue. (Despite being a writer and drawer myself, growing up I was oddly unaware of, and unconcerned with, who was writing and drawing the comics I read. But there were a handful of exceptions, folks whose style was too distinctive, too hopelessly individual, not to notice, and Kirby was at the head of that list.) So it’s great to see these works collected – most of which I’ve never read before, as the heyday of Kirby’s Fourth World work was in the early 70s, whereas I didn’t start reading comics until the mid-70s, by which time Kirby had moved on to Kamandi and OMAC.

Jack Kirby’s Fourth World What’s the story? Well, there’s a bunch of magic-wielding warriors who fight for peace and justice, and who draw their powers, and guidance, from a mystical energy field called “the Source.” Their chief opponent, Darkseid (pronounced “dark side”), is a towering, dark-clad, dome-helmeted figure who rules a planet that is one huge city; he too draws his powers from the Source, though he seeks to control a twisted “anti-life” version of it. Orion, one of the most powerful leaders of the good guys, turns out to be Darkseid’s son, leading to speculation as to whether he is destined to defeat Darkseid – or instead to succumb to his heritage and turn evil. Yes, all this was pre-Star Wars – leading to endless internet debates as to whether George Lucas was aware of Kirby’s work. (If borrowings there were, they went both ways: in the 80s Kirby returned to the series to have Darkseid use his secret weapon to blow up the good guys’ peaceful planet – and even included the fleeting image of an Imperial Star Destroyer in his depiction of the explosion.)

Anyway apropos of all this, a couple of comments:

1. The fourth volume is apparently going to end with Kirby’s 1985 Hunger Dogs – which I gather means that Kirby’s New-Gods-related work on the Super Powers series is going to be left out. If so, I can understand that decision, since Kirby’s involvement in Super Powers was complicated (see below); still, it’s unfortunate that that work isn’t going to be collected.

Visit to a future where the Justice League fails to defeat Darkseid The Super Powers comic books are largely forgotten today. (For example, Wikipedia wrongly claims – as of this writing – that the superhero “Golden Pharaoh” was “created exclusively for the Super Powers Collection line of action figures” and “never appeared in any comic books.”) Super Powers consists in three identically titled limited series: a five-issue series in 1984, a six-issue series in 1985, and a four-issue series in 1986. The stories, which pit Darkseid and his minions against the Justice League, lie outside mainline DC continuity. For one thing, they accept the events of Hunger Dogs, including the destruction of New Genesis and the overthrow of Darkseid’s rule on Apokolips – events that in current DC continuity never happened. (These event seem to take place between the first and second series.) For another, the Justice League is referred to as the “Super Powers Team” (remember that toy tie-in) and its headquarters looks like the one in the tv series Super Friends (also part of the tie-in).

I suspect Kirby was unhappy about having to conform to a product tie-in. In any case, Darkseid’s ranting, in the contemporaneous (but far superior) Hunger Dogs, against the ignoble nature of the “Micro-Mark” device, the “fearsome pygmy” on which he is forced to rely, sounds a lot like an artist complaining about a line of action figures based on his work. When the device’s makers describe it as “light, compact, and inexpensive to assemble,“ and assure Darkseid: “We’re turning them out by the thousands! Cheap, sire! … A new age is dawning, sire! … Have I not turned his awesome talent to child’s play!? I’ve conquered the impossible, sire! – for the price of a small coin!” Darkseid replies: “You blind ‘tinkertoy’ promoters of mediocrity! … Don’t say anything more! If you make any reference to packaging …. You expect me to sanction this … this filth? … You’ve ‘ripped-off’ the anti-life equation!” But the makers of the Micro-Mark continue to insist that the “unchanged wizardry” on which a “poor, shabby old relic” might rely has been “made obsolete by simple toys! … This is Micro-Mark’s hour! There’s no need for intrigue or great strivings – the cosmos lies open to button-pushing babes! … For what is power now but cheap techno-plumbing[?]” Sounds like Kirby’s got an issue about something ….

But what’s Super Powers about? Well, both Darkseid (whose planet has rebelled and exiled him) and the New Gods crowd (whose planet has exploded) are looking for a home base; the New Gods are trying to remake the newly liberated Apokolips in the image of New Genesis (the new homeworld introduced at the end of Hunger Dogs has evidently been forgotten), while Darkseid’s aim is either to conquer Earth and make it into a new Apokolips, or else to reconquer the original Apokolips (or both). He tries again and again, but the Justice League keeps stopping him, usually with the help of Orion or Metron or Mister Miracle. The third series ends on a semi-cliffhanger (Darkseid has disguised himself as a superhero and has insinuated himself into the Apokolips reconstruction project, while at the same time attracting Wonder Woman’s romantic interest); as far as I know this dangling plot thread was never resolved.

Darkseid defeated What’s Kirby’s involvement? With the third series (which incidentally features inter alia the aforementioned totally lame Golden Pharaoh character, who draws his powers from anything pyramid-shaped, and talks the way British people were once imagined to talk), none at all – it’s written and drawn entirely by other people. (So you can’t blame the Golden Pharaoh on Kirby.) But Kirby did the art (though not the writing) for the second series (see the accompanying pic, portraying a defeated Darkseid escaping through the sewers of Armagetto). For the first four issues of the first series, he did plotting but not writing, and cover artwork but not interior artwork. For issue #5 of the first series, however, Kirby wrote and drew the whole thing.

I can see how all this poses a problem for the compilers of the Omnibus. If they included the first two series, they’d be including a lot of material written and/or drawn by people other than Kirby, which would arguably defeat the point of the collection. If instead they included only issue #5 of the first series – the one issue written and drawn entirely by Kirby – readers would be presented with a conclusion without seeing what it was a conclusion to. And in any case the Super Powers material just isn’t as good as most of the Fourth World stuff. So I can see why they threw up their hands and left it all out entirely. Still, the regrettable result is that there’s a substantial amount of New-Gods-related material written and/or drawn and/or plotted by Kirby that won’t be making it into the omnibus. Come on, guys; give us a separate Super Powers collection.

Incidentally, one advantage of the second Super Powers series is that we finally get an unfiltered look at Kirby’s vision of Superman – by contrast with the original Fourth World comics, where Kirby’s pencils of Superman were always redrawn in “DC house style”:

Superman, Kirby style - Superman, redrawn - Conformity must prevail!

2. In what seems like an odd way of marking the release of the Kirby Omnibus, DC Comics is currently killing all the Fourth World characters off, in a series called Death of the New Gods (though a number of them were already killed off in other series shortly before). I’m not sure why they want to get rid of these characters and anyway the “someone is systematically bumping off superheroes” plot has been done better before, in comics like Watchmen and Rising Stars. The deaths thus far seem pretty pointless; it’s like watching Tasha Yar get killed the same way over and over again.

Voltairine de Cleyre, Anarcho-Capitalist?

[cross-posted at Liberty & Power]

William Gillis is putting together a left-oriented (he doesn’t like the term “left” but I can’t think of a better short way to describe it) series of market anarchist pamphlets in PDF form, reprinting various “historical articles from our tradition that highlight our relation to the revolutionary left and explain Market Anarchist theory in general terms.” There’s one in there by me – and how my piece got in there with classics by Murray Rothbard and Voltairine de Cleyre beats me, but I’m not complaining! Check out the first five.

The de Cleyre piece – co-authored with one “Rosa Slobodinsky,” who, according to Shawn Wilbur, was actually Rachelle Slobodinsky Yarros, wife of Victor Yarros – may be especially controversial. It was written while de Cleyre and Slobodinsky were still in their individualist anarchist phase, and represents a defense of individualist anarchism against the anarcho-communist alternative. (De Cleyre later repudiated individualist anarchism, though without embracing the communist version either; instead she came to favour a more pluralistic vision of anarchism where different economic arrangements, whether individualistic or communistic, would coexist. I’m happy to call that view individualist anarchism even if she wasn’t. Slobodinsky’s later “apostasy” was more serious; she seems to have agreed with her husband in renouncing anarchism entirely, or so at least I infer from this write-up, which portrays her as a self-described “half apologetic pragmatist” who “admired the Soviet Union.” Ah well.)

Voltairine de Cleyre The “especially controversial” part comes in the individualists’ willingness to use the term “capitalistic” to describe their system. As I’ve discussed before, anarcho-socialists tend to go ballistic when anarcho-capitalists claim the legacy of individualist anarchists like de Cleyre. (See for example this review – whose author incidentally appears to think that Crispin Sartwell is an anarcho-capitalist!) Yet to the charge, on the part of anarcho-communists, that individualist anarchism amounts to a form of capitalism, de Cleyre and Slobodinsky reply:

Capitalistic Anarchism? Oh, yes, if you choose to call it so. Names are indifferent to me; I am not afraid of bugaboos. Let it be so, then, capitalistic Anarchism.

I can predict the likely reactions from both sides. Anarcho-capitalists will say: “See, de Cleyre was a defender of capitalism after all! So much for those lefty anarchists who told us that the hem of the individualist anarchist tradition was too purely anti-capitalist for us benighted capitalists to touch. Now we have the individualist anarchists’ own word for it that they were happy to be called capitalist anarchists!” And anarcho-socialists will respond: “De Cleyre and Slobodinsky are clearly using the term tongue in cheek! They’re responding to a smear by insisting on talking about substance rather than labels. They’re not really endorsing capitalism the way you pseudo-anarchists do.”

Let me try to say something to moderate both reactions. What the 19th-century individualist anarchists advocated under the name of a “free market” has both similarities with and differences from what the mainstream of 20th-century anarcho-capitalists have advocated under that name. Anarcho-capitalists tend to stress the similarities and ignore the differences; anarcho-socialists tend to stress the differences and ignore the similarities. It would be a mistake on the part of anarcho-capitalists to seize on de Cleyre’s and Slobodinsky’s use of the term “capitalistic Anarchism” to elide the genuine differences that exist between the two traditions. But by the same token, it is a mistake for anarcho-socialists to seize on anarcho-capitalists’ use of the term “capitalism” as though it implied agreement with existing corporatist capitalism.

Rachelle Yarros AKA Rosa SlobodinskyToo often anarcho-socialists have treated anarcho-capitalists’ mere willingness to use the term “capitalism” as though this terminological choice by itself committed anarcho-capitalists to all sorts of awful things incompatible with the anarchist tradition – and this passage from de Cleyre and Slobidinsky is a useful corrective to that tendency. Anarcho-capitalists likewise tend to downplay, while anarcho-socialists tend to exaggerate, the extent to which the individualist anarchists called themselves “socialists” – as though the choice of terminology were the crucial one. (Tucker, for example, tended to use the term “socialism” favourably in his early writings and pejoratively in his later ones; anarcho-capitalists rarely quote the earlier usage and anarcho-socialists rarely quote the later. I myself have pretty much given up using either “socialism” or “capitalism” to mean anything at all, for reasons I explain here.)

And along with the terminological blinkers come substantive blinkers. You’d never guess, from reading some of the anarcho-capitalists’ attempts to claim the mantle of the individualist anarchists, that most of those individualist anarchists saw the anarchist cause as inextricably bound up with “socialist” causes like worker empowerment and the abolition of the wage system – causes that many anarcho-capitalists in vulgar-libbin’ mode regard as anathema. But then you’d likewise never guess from reading anarcho-socialist critiques of anarcho-capitalism that there have nevertheless been self-described anarcho-capitalists, and prominent ones, who themselves favoured worker empowerment and the abolition of the wage system. All these details call for studying similarities and differences carefully and using the sledgehammer sparingly.

So, how significant is it that a figure like Voltairine de Cleyre was willing to call her position “capitalist”? I say: less than some anarcho-capitalists may be tempted to claim, yet more than some anarcho-socialists may care to admit.

A Divine Gift

The quotations that appear on the Opelika-Auburn News’ crossword page are usually yawnworthy, but I liked this one from today:

“Whom God would sorely vex, he endows with abundant good sense.” – Yiddish proverb

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