A quatrain of "ways of looking", as Wallace Stevens put it, at the groundbreaking first issue of Dark Circle’s relaunch of The Black Hood.
Referencing his formal training in a recent Charlie Rose interview, Kevin Spacey emphasizes in a brief digression, the words “…in Mask Class in Juilliard." Mask Class. Spacey goes on to reference almost a moment of liberation as an actor, and his experiencing of this moment as a young actor, still at school. You wouldn’t expect it to, but your body moves in waves it normally wouldn’t, Spacey goes on to tell Rose. It’s because your face has been deleted, he posits.
The interview was conducted to tie-in with the recently released third season of Spacey’s latest project, the television drama House of Cards. Spacey’s point was an expansion on that old chestnut: An actor is walking down Main Street. He's assaulted by passerby for the way a character he plays on a soap opera treats another character. "It’s not me," Spacey sys to Rose. Indeed, he often wants to scream, "It’s a character I play!"
Between the actor and the character, however, there is a moment of disinhibition, one first encountered during Mask Class.
In October of 2011, regular followers of UK mental magician and showman, Derren Brown, were inducted into a very different kind of Mask Class. In an episode of, Derren Brown: the Experiments called "The Gameshow", Brown demonstrated what live audience members believed were the psychological underpinnings of what makes reality TV so addictive. But in true magician fashion, this was only misdirection. The true object of the show was to demonstrate how “mob mentality” can spontaneously erupt, and how it can direct large groups to actions known by the group to be wrong.
The true object of experiment in the show was the live audience, and not the hapless, unknowing reality TV “victim”. By way of explaining the sudden eruption of bad behavior, Brown explains the concept of deindividuation in the final moments of the show. It all began when Brown asked audience members to don the plain white masks conveniently located under their seats. That sense of uniformity allowed the idea of the crowd as a collective to set in in the mind of each individual audience member. As the stakes were ratcheted up, personal morality became secondary to the will of the group. (By way of counterpoint, psychologists from the Universities of Sussex and St. Andrews offer a response to Brown’s show via an article on Nirmukta.)
The Black Hood, which released the first issue of its latest Dark Circle reimagining last month, courtesy of writer Duane Swierczynski and artist Michael Gaydos, deftly straddles these two psychological concepts of disinhibition and deindividuation.
Officer Gregory Hettinger, the man who’ll become the titular Black Hood, finds himself the victim of a shotgun wound to the face, but survives to tell the tale. Depression and an addiction to painkillers set in, ironically as a direct result of his bravery, rather than as a result of his nonexistent fear.
Donning the Black Hood by the end of the first issue presents Hettinger with an opportunity to escape the fear and the pain, the depression and the reliance on painkillers. But along with these positives comes something else. A more sinister form of the same experience rather like Spacey experienced in Mask Class: a body that moves in a way you would never think to move your own body in, while it was yours. And as Hettinger dives from a rooftop and lands in the middle of a mugging, Brown’s deindividuation appears. Hettinger’s ready to physically assault the muggers to interdict the situation. “I’m the Black Hood,” Hettinger affirms to himself right before the fight, Just as the issue ends.
Like a Record Album
This isn’t a book that should be read as a book, philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari warn in the foreword to the concluding volume of their magnum opus, Capitalism & Schizophrenia. It's a book to be experienced in the same way you experience a music album. Listen to the first track first, and the last track last, but for goodness sake, jump around, don’t read in sequence.
Working in the tradition of poststructuralism, Deleuze and Guattari believed that a linear, well-reasoned argument was a power-maker, and an Apollonian contrivance which artificially limits and subverts the reader’s own authority. So by all means read in any order.
Maybe the hidden stroke of genius is how much of Hettinger’s story after the shotgun wound to the face is qualitatively the same as any moment before. Whether he’s in hospital immediately recovering from his wound, whether he’s annihilating himself, watching meaningless TV shows while wearing the gag Black Hood his fellow officers left for him, whether he’s anesthetizing himself by roughing up perps far more than is necessary, Officer Gregory Hettinger pushes us into the same bleak and unforgiving emotional territory.
If you wanted a more chaotic experience, you could well read the scenes in any order you please and still achieve the same emotional numbness. Just as Deleuze and Guattari encourage you to do when reading the final volume of Capitalism & Schizophrenia. Just read the first scene first, and the final scene last, and you’d have an equally rich, albeit, nonlinear experience.
This technique of muted, saturated, blighted emotional storytelling, which perfectly mirrors the emotional arc of the main character, is nothing new to comics. Read-in-any-order-but-this-is-the-order-that-we-as-creators-are-suggesting is actually the stock in trade of comics. It is the kind of freedom from Authoritarianism (that stems from authority) that Deleuze and Guattari seek to escape from in academia and find in popculture.
Comics is predicated on the reader at first being inundated by a flood of new information (textual, verbal, auditory, visual all in service of what screenwriting guru Robert McKee would refer to as “Story”), information she knows she will master, once she’s better able to organize this information. Yet her confidence in her ability to organize this incoming flood only grows with more information flooding in. If I can’t organize information now, the reader tells herself, just by reading, I can already begin to imagine a future moment when I will have mastered all this information and will be able to tell myself the full story.
Comics appears as fractionated, in the present moment, and predicates upon all readers being able to imagine a future moment of defraction, when their skill at reading the page is equal to the task of unraveling the Story. Swierczynski and Gaydos’s storytelling mimic perfectly the primary mode of comics reading.
Time moves differently when you’re injured.
Maybe the most effective political statement the perennial classic Watchmen was able to level at American culture during a moment we couldn’t comprehend at the time as the dying days of the Cold War, was the idea that exceptionalism in the absence of cold-blooded thoroughness, is a path to ruin. Sure Rorschach and Nite Owl can succeed on a small scale, but if you want to tackle the larger problem of impending nuclear world war, and the possible extinction of the species, you need a mind as cynical as the Comedian’s just to be able to perceive it, and an efficiency as bloodless as Ozymandias’s to solve it.
Put on a mask and you exceptionalize yourself. And if enough people do this, the ruin of society cannot be far behind, seems to be the lesson of Watchmen. But what if society is already teetering on the brink, as critically acclaimed crime writer Dennis Tafoya’s backmatter essay, “Corrupt and Contented: Crime in Philadelphia” suggests? And what if you wear a mask not to exceptionalize yourself, but to anesthetize yourself, and to allow yourself to fit in more easily then?
Swierczynski and Gaydos invert the late Cold War logic that in some ways has come to cast a specter across all of popculture, really since the days of Watchmen. The Black Hood allows us to shift gears through the genres. This is no longer the Western, where the hero (or heroes) ride out and reap the rewards of protecting the community. Nor is this the typical noir of staring down corruption and being able to do nothing other than hate it or participate.
This is something new entirely. New codes and new conventions. And who can say where it’s going?
Some Ways of Looking, Maybe No More than 13 in Total
You’ve just got to love Shmoop. All the hither-and-thithering about Wallace Stevens's classic poem, “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird”, and they just cut right through the bluster. "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird’ is exactly what its title suggests. No tricks, no gimmicks, no sleights of hand. In thirteen brief, mysterious sections, the American poet Wallace Stevens initiates us into the world of the blackbird,” they write.
As their critical appreciation, so the poem itself. Stevens relies on, or fits into, or seeks out two traditions “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird”; imagism, where economy of language can be used to define essential truths about an subject, truths that can only be expressed in a moment, and cubism, a painting style that is marked by perspectival compilation rather than a singular, unitary, fixed perspective on its subject.
In its sparse language, but heightened, sometimes almost surreal observational moments, “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” is to poetry what Seinfeld was to situational comedy TV shows: a breaking of the mold. It’s not a test of the author, a showcase for his mastery of his craft. Rather, it’s a test of you, and how much you can bring to moments described by an author willing to self-annihilate in the interest of capturing some truth.
The Black Hood is to comics what “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” is to poetry. And it's the book you’ve secretly been dying to see Swierczynski write (if you’ve been reading his comics since “Date Night” all the way back in 2007’s Moon Knight Annual #1) and dying to see Michael Gaydos draw (if you too were blown away by how effectively he was able to reduce Captain America to a guest-starring role in Alias #5).
All images from The Black Hood (2015)