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Is the Past Merely Epilogue?: Nostalgia, After “The Fox”

What writer-artist Dean Haspiel and co-plotter Mark Waid achieve with Red Circle’s The Fox: Freak Magnet is nothing short of amazing—the simultaneous dismantling and honoring of the golden age of pulp.

You can almost hear the phrase “carte blanche” echo down the years of Brian Azzarello’s writing and echo one last time as a sort of white noise EVP phenomenon in Doctor 13: Architecture & Morality. While the phrase itself doesn’t appear in the book, the emotional poignancy underlying its original use in 100 Bullets certainly is echoed. “You’ll be given… …carte blanche,” Agent Graves said to Dizzy Cordova in the first issue of 100 Bullets back in the summer ’99. And if you animate that air of resignation and wonder and terror just right, you can easily “get it”—the idea that Azzarello’s as much talking about breaking into a marketplace dominated by long-existing comics, as he is about Graves offering Dizzy a clean slate.

Up against characters and titles with decades of history, like the Fantastic Four or Hulk that stretch back to the early ‘60s, or worse yet, Batman or Wonder Woman that stretch back to the ‘40s, how could Azzarello possibly produce something that would garner enough interest to last decades of its own? His solution was simple enough—start something entirely new. Find the territory not yet tread. Reach into novelty. Carte Blanche.

And yet, around a half-decade after, in the wake of DC’s Infinite Crisis Azzarello finds himself at precisely the opposite end of the table—needing to map a character steeped in continuity, yet a character about whom little is known. It’s with this character in 2006’s Doctor 13: Architecture & Morality, that Azzarello begins to explore “carte blanche” as a kind of active force that always reorients even the longest of longstanding characters towards always appearing in the present. And it’s also with this book that Azzarello defines the scope of the dilemma facing Dean Haspiel and Mark Waid with their reboot of Red Circle’s The Fox.

The Fox is as bold and as psychologically vivid a pulp superhero as any of the classics. Easily the equal of care-free Spider-Man quipping his way through every battle he enters into, or a dark Batman hyper-focused on preventing the same crime that took the lives of his parents over and again. Every superhero has their origin story, their original sin. And the Fox’s? It’s closer to Pandora’s—he wants what he should not, and is was wholly unprepared for the consequences of getting it. Rather than chase blindly after stories, reporter Paul Patton Jr. reactivates his dad’s Golden Age superhero alter ego to get the stories to chase him. But now he’s faced with a Frankenstein’s monster in that the stories simply won’t stop.

In the pages of the recent The Fox: Freak Magnet, Haspiel and Waid lead readers through the wonderhell that is Paul Patton’s life, and even take him on an adventure that would see him encounter and ultimately rescue all of the missing Golden Age heroes. In his afterword, Haspiel writes about Paul Patton being “a journeyman” and Paul himself not realizing he’s “exactly where he’s supposed to be.” Haspiel’s own meditation on the character keys in beautifully with what underpins the entire thematic arc of the five-issue mini, and what is in some ways, most crucial to the storytelling—that dealing with the past, that confronting the decades of often arcane publication histories of these characters is both incredibly hard and incredibly rewarding. It is an ongoing commitment to breaking free from nostalgia as a kind of market economy, and ensure that this work of recapturing offers up something that is both relevant and meaningful to audiences today. While at the same time not disavowing the original allure of character.

It’s something Warren Ellis deals with on almost every page of the 27 issues that comprise his series Planetary. To whit, as early as the series proposal to Wildstorm, he writes:

The Wildstorm Universe is just the obvious shiny surface of an Earth with superheroes. Go a little deeper, and you find strangeness and wonder on a planetary scale. There are people weirder and more marvellous than the WildC.A.T.S. or StormWatch, who simply prefer to operate outside the glare of world publicity. There are mad and beautiful things beneath the skin of the world we know, that you only see when you look at things on a planetary scale…

...and I'm not talking about X-Files stuff. Fun as it is, it's done to death. I'm talking about a world in the superhero genre whose only known heroes, for the most part, are sourced in conspiracy theory and hallucinated alien histories. What if, underneath all that, there was an entire classic old superhero world? What if there were huge Jack Kirby temples underground built by old gods or new, and ghostly cowboys riding the highways of the West for justice, and superspies in natty suits and 360-degree-vision shades fighting cold wars in the dark, and strange laughing killers kept in old Lovecraftian asylums... what if you had a hundred years of superhero history just slowly leaking out into this young and modern superhero world of the Wildstorm Universe? What if you could take everything old and make it new again?

What if you had a hundred years of superhero history just slowly leaking out into this young and modern superhero world? That’s just another way of saying, we’re facing the journeyman’s dilemma of not realizing we’re exactly where we need to be, even while adrift in self-doubt.

In Freak Magnet, Haspiel and Waid wrestle with exactly these demons in a rare story that also conducts hero Paul Patton down a path of personal growth. They rely as much on traditional audience expectations of classic pulp-era comics as they do on strong narrative and charismatic protagonists. The result is something so wildly innovative that it’s hard to imagine we don’t stray into the loftier territory of meta à la Charlie Kaufman. But we don’t. The story is as solid in your hands as anything you can imagine.

And yet that innovativeness. What on the surface appears to be a traditional back-up story, what we as audience expect will be a back-up story, turns out to be the conclusion by another path. The fun and games of rescuing Bob Phantom and Inferno and The Marvel are just great, but breaking the “fourth” gutter between main story and back-up, to have The Original Shield’s tale woven into Fox’s tale, is both staggering and breathtaking when it happens. The moment is even more rewarding than very many incandescently creative panel layouts Haspiel uses to show the Fox clamber through the jewel-world of the Queen of Diamonds. Even more rewarding than the throwaway cavalier of ingenious lines like “cubisms of evil.”

There’s a brio and a joy to Freak Magnet. But there’s also method and intent to Haspiel and Waid’s storytelling. Intent and method that whisk us far and away from funerary/seance sense that’s become so pervasive in modern comics. It’s a sense almost directly attributable to what can be described as the nostalgia economy—a moment Scott McCloud describes in his Understanding Comics.

Remember a time, McCloud interrogates you, when showing was telling and telling was showing? He draws out the drama of a young kid doing show & tell on his toy robot for his class. And when the kid runs out of words, he simply demonstrates how the robot transforms into a jet fighter. “And it does this,” the kid says, or something to that effect. And for a shining, golden moment, we’re all wrapped up in the drama of that. Because we’ve all experienced a moment like that. And we all remember the elegant simplicity of being able to use language to manipulate the world around us (maybe only in part) in exactly that way.

But being swept up in the wonder of that nostalgia is consorting with the cheap and the damned. Because going back means perpetually rehearsing a moment of self-mastery. And idolizing that moment of past-mastery necessitates against any kind of personal growth. And zero personal growth is exactly the opposite of comics.

Imagine if you will, any comics page. There’s no easy path to follow like the line through time that leads you from one word to the next. It’s just not like how it is with prose. Instead you’re overwhelmed. You’re inundated with a flood of new information some visual, some textual, some graphic caricatures of sound. You don’t know where to begin, and worse yet, you’re not certain you can master it. Not certain you’ll ever be able to know the full meaning of the page. But then you grab at one piece, an action say or a string of words, and pull until understand just that tiny bit. And then you tug at another. And slowly over time, you accumulate more and more understood bits, and finally the mechanism kicks in and you begin to synthesize those micro-understandings into a single meaning. And as you master the page, you begin to imagine a future moment when you’d have understood, everything.

Comics is about the future. About projecting yourself forward in time when you've expanded your mastery beyond the things you’ve already been able to accomplish. This is the sterner stuff ambition was always supposed to be made from.

With Freak Magnet Haspiel and Waid present a unique solution a problem that at one time (more or less until they tackled the issue) seemed both perennial and intractable—how do you deal with the narrative and semantic weight of accumulated publication history. And worse still, how do you both honor that history, and innovate, once a character has fallen from the public eye for some time now?

One way is, as a creator, to immediately immerse yourself in the nostalgia economy. You’ve seen these kind of books quite often by now. The kind of book where the publisher rereleases a classic pulp hero or superhero in a brand new format and setting, modernized and updated current cultural sensibilities in every way. And as a kind of guarantee of authenticity, the back-up story is the reprint of a B&W (or maybe color) classic from the character’s publication archive. “You see,” the book seems to be say, “I told you this was a classic character.”

Another way is simply to continue to innovate, as Haspiel and Waid have done. To continue to innovate even at the level of publication format, even to the extent of breaking down internal barriers between main story and back-up. And in the end, to rely on spotlighting the inherent principle of the character to win over an entirely new generation as audience.

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