'Lantern City' and its Steampunk Futures
There's a depth to Lantern City that great artists like Victor Hugo and J.D. Salinger and the Marx Brothers have been struggling with since the very beginning.
I mean "futures" in the same sense it's used in with financial contracts. We'll get to that. The place to begin, to pick up with after last week's lead-in to Lantern City, is Robertson Davies, and the "Deptford Trilogy". With the "Fifth Business". The Fifth Business is also the title of the first book in Davies's series. And quoting 18th-19th century Danish playwright Thomas Overskou, Davies defines the Fifth Business thus:
Those roles which, being neither those of Hero nor Heroine, Confidante nor Villain, but which were none the less essential to bring about the Recognition or the denouement were called the Fifth Business in drama and Opera companies organized according to the old style; the player who acted these parts was often referred to as Fifth Business.
In classical opera, the parts of Hero, Heroine, Villain, Confidante are all appended to particular voice roles. The tenor, soprano, bass and contralto. It's the Fifth Business, the seemingly vanilla baritone, that actually brings about character evolution in the Hero. It's the more generalized concept of the Fifth Business that makes Marx Brothers comedies a transcendental experience. That's where we begin, with the Marx Brothers as the Fifth Business.
Marx Brothers movies are never about the Marx Brothers. Sure they'll show up and goof around, they'll get the job done and save the day in the end, but those movies never cast the Brothers themselves in the roles of Hero or Villain. They were never cast as the young couple who were intent on selling family land and marrying against all odds (like in Go West). But the Brothers always saw to it that that couple got together in the end.
The Brothers were always the outsiders, always the Fifth Business. Evolving the situation until the Hero and Heroine themselves could draw on inner resources they didn't realize they had. Imagine an Archie comicbook that's about Jughead, or a Batman comicbook that's about Robin. (I see what you're doing there with Jim Gordon as Batman, Scott Snyder).
With that role reversal, getting star billing in a movie where you're the change agent rather than the Hero, the Marx Brothers opened an unimaginable wealth of uniquely American opportunities. When people talk about American Exceptionalism, they're talking about a place where Marx Brothers movies make sense on a gut level. Because you can see the hand of Marx Brothers comedies move through every high school comedy or sports drama ever. You can hear it in Chris Pratt's voice, last year in Guardians of the Galaxy when he says, "We're all losers. And by that I mean we've all lost something…" You can also see the Brothers' hand in the idea that you can do just OK in school, and then go on to design sneakers and enjoy life and liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Marx Brothers movies means it doesn't have be like it was in Europe; the Great Game of Kings and Powers and Principalities and then everyone else who has to eke out a paltry living to barely make ends meet.
Marx Brothers movies means that you can just be happy. That you can be the outsider, the Fifth Business, that you can change the situation (even if the situation is just being born in a bad place). More than that, Marx Brothers movies speaks to a cultural moment when the entire mainstream of society is presently, or can at any moment, be the Fifth Business. The alternative would be unthinkable. The alternative would be Lantern City.
It's breathtaking how finely crafted writer and co-creator Matthew Daly's scripts are. Each issue of the three thus far have been tight and episodic. Something happens, but it's just one thing. When it happens, that something hits like a comet. For the rest of the issue we're crawling from the impact crater.
In Lantern City there are the overlords. They rule from the Gray Towers. There's no escape from the City, but no one would want to escape because outside, the very earth has been poisoned by a war between rival powers. Lantern City's the only safe place. So even if you're part of the proletariat, and even if your life is completely blasted, and your everyday day-to-day is nothing better than working a chain gang, you stick around because the alternative is worse. Between the proles and the overclasses, there are the Guards.
Lantern City opens with a pretty audacious concept. Sander, our go-to proletarian Hero, finds himself in the unlikely and uncomfortable position of needing to assume the role of a Captain of the Guard, in order to save his friends and family during a raid. In issue two, Sander's been thrown headlong into the upside-down, inside-out world of the Guards, and finds himself needing to defend his assumed identity. Can he make it through spot checks for tattooed Guard IDs, can he fake weapons drills and jump-line prep in a way that won't out him as a proletarian?
There's another twist in the tale, and this is maybe the most exciting one. When Sander first assumed the Guard's identity he seemed to be pushed into seizing the opportunity that came with a random and unexpected moment. There was an explosion, (details are plain to read in issue #1), and the Guard Captain dies. Sander dons his uniform. Once inside the Guards' life, it seems that this might not have been an accident at all. Some secretive political movement seems to have social engineered sympathizers into place. So the doctor who performs Sander's unit's medical fakes test results, and the quartermaster Guard who doles out rations seems to know about Sander. And there's another plot twist: Sander's married, or at least his alter ego, Captain Orlin, is, but even the marriage is a fake to rescue a different proletarian woman.
All the time Sander's locked into an almost palpable spiral of yearning. He misses his family, dreams about them, fears he will never be reunited with them. Even if he was reunited with them, what then? He still wouldn't be able to provide enough food. He still wouldn't be able to overturn the Guards' arbitrary decision to simply reduce his rations. He still wouldn't be able to live in a world free of rations altogether. It's not his family that he's missing. It's the fear that they cannot be happy and prosper even if his presence were guaranteed.
This bereft world that writer Daly brings us into is captured perfectly, and with great psychological vividness, by series regular artist Carlos Magno's cover to issue #3. I'll tell you where the magic happens. It's not the oversized, imposing authoritarian poster of the Guards reminding citizens that Guards Protect so that citizens might Serve. It's not that, we understand Communism and that's not where the semiotic weight lies. It's not even the father and son standing behind the wrought iron railing, all in silhouette, that protects the poster. The magic lies in that lamppost just at the edge of shot to the left. Its light is so bright it seems to light up that inner space of the apartment just across the way.
If you've ever lived in New York, or I guess any other dense, high frequency urban environment (but maybe NYC is the most evocative for this example), you'd know a light that bright would kill any chances of a normal sleep cycle in that apartment. In just the most beautiful nutshell, Magno tells us a visual tale of how the public sphere intrudes and demolishes the private, interior spaces of love and family and home.
But that's not the whole story. This isn't Nineteen Eighty-Four, this isn't simple a story about the destruction of interior spaces where you'd no longer need to kneel at the altar of "We live in public". Magno's imagine is far more complex. There's darkness in this image. A darkness without dread, monstrous and operatic, steampunk imagery that for Sander and his family is daily bread. The rest of the world, the buildings, the walls are so imposing, so psychically penetrating, that you're drawn to the tyranny of the propaganda, and the far more insidious tyranny of a street lamp that destroys your family life.
After just one poignant, heartbreaking image, the phrase "Lantern" City begins to take on a far deeper, more symbolic and more terrible meaning. Light without warmth. Light that destroys not only community, but our capacity to build community. The Lanterns of Lantern City are entirely about reversing the lessons we learned in the caves—where fire can provide warmth and safety and the starting point for stories. A century from now, people will point to Lantern City and they'll say, "This is art."
Is it hard to see what's going one here? The equation seems simple enough, and plug-and-play ready. The image of a lantern is made to become a metaphor for technology; while it comes from social progress, it still moves to annihilate the very context that produced it. Can you think of a more powerful message in an age of Instagram, Facebook and the kind of social media backlash that seems to have so worn out Joss Whedon that he quit his Twitter? The irony is that this isn't a plague of the modern age at all, but goes back to J.D. Salinger in the '40s. To a short story he wrote after the War. And back farther still to the original 19th century work Salinger's short story was based on. So before we get to that let's sojourn to the 19th century.
Maybe the two European writers who confront this problem of modern technology undermining our capacity to build and sustain social structures are Charles Baudelaire and strangely enough, Victor Hugo. You've kinda got to root for Hugo on this one. Not because Baudelaire with his writings somehow manages to talk himself into satanism (and that's… let's call it unpleasant and leave it there), but because there's something cheap about Baudelaire's philosophy in that it relies on fundamental, intractable certainties. Too much Catholicism, therefore the antidote must be a little satanism. That's really the opposite of the kind of social mobility ushered in with the Fifth Business.
Hugo's something different entirely. He's almost there, and for one brief moment, with "The Man Who Laughs", he nearly breaks through the wall. How so? Because "The Man Who Laughs" is all about a young man whose injuries mimic Rictus sardonicus. A young man who is neither Hero nor Villain nor Confidante nor Heroine, but who nevertheless exposes (rather than qualitative alters) a monolithic and intransigent social order.
"The Laughing Man", the Salinger short story, is, well it's not "Go See Eddie". "Go See Eddie" is like a punch in the face, the kind that knocks out your four front teeth. But "The Laughing Man" isn't this. It's better. It's even better than the original Hugo novella it's named for, because Salinger's "The Laughing Man" adds in a modernist fold of the social "mechanization" of industry. If you want to understand the risks of being human after the social restructuring that came in the wake of the Great Depression, if you want to understand what's at stake with PopMatters as a broader project, you could do a lot worse than sit down and unpack "The Laughing Man".
In many ways, Salinger's "hero" is the ultimate Fifth Business, so outside the mainstream he appears as fiction in the very story that carries his name. It's about storytelling at a time in the lives of boys when they can't yet imagine themselves as, but realize that one day they must become, adult men. It's about pulp stories that emerge from pastimes, set at a time (1928) when pulp stories are being transitioned into mega-industry. It's a story about how pulp fiction can be the Fifth Business for lives of humbled greatness, lived on the balance of a knife edge. You're rooting for John and Mary, and all the boys in the Comanche Club. Even if all the hope for change is resting with the Laughing Man trapped in John's fictions.
With Lantern City you're rooting for Sander, hoping, praying he'll make it there to be that Fifth Business that his society deserves. He's not there now. Not yet. But, like we can with a futures contract purchased through the stock market, purchase an option to buy a commodity at a certain price at some point in the future, we can also, because of the working out of the idea of the Fifth Business, conceive of "Not Yet, but Soon". That's why I'm sticking with Lantern City and so should you.