The Cultural Gutter

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The Pitiful Death of Monsieur Mallah

Carol Borden
Posted July 22, 2010

mallah bashed 80.JPGThere’s a sickness in my stomach I’ve been carrying a while, an unpleasant acid feeling that bothers me when I’ve been reading or reading about comics lately. And I guess it’s time for me to cough it up and see what the hell is burning a hole inside.

People who are better fans than I are troubled by the editorial and creative direction at DC and Marvel, the two biggest comics publishers. You can read their pieces and see what they think is wrong. I’ve kept my head down reading my own preferred peripheral comics—comics outside the event horizon of company-wide crossovers. I figured I could wait out the rash of killings, rapes and general unpleasantness as I have waited out takes on Batman I didn’t like. I thought it would stay contained. I thought I was safe, that it was all part of the normal cycle of comics. But somehow the unpleasantness reached me with the death of Monsieur Mallah and the Brain.

I bought some issues of Salvation Run, miniseries in which earth’s supervillains are exiled to another planet. I like stories about supervillains all in it together, but I stopped reading after one of my favorite villainous duos, Monsieur Mallah, the superintelligent gay gorilla, and his beloved Brain, a disembodied human brain, were murdered by Gorilla Grodd.

I didn’t stop reading because they were killed, though that would’ve annoyed me by itself. Death is an overused plot device in comics and Monsieur Mallah and the Brain die a storyline that has all the marks of reducing the number of gorilla supervillains and displaying how hardcore villains really are. No, this killing has a nasty resonance, what mallah bashed 250.JPGwith Grodd taunting a pleading Brain while using him to bludgeon a pleading Mallah to death. Grodd might murder Monsieur Mallah for being an “abomination”–meaning perhaps an ape who fraternizes with humans or an ape who’s been experimented on by humans. But it
doesn’t matter all that much because there’s another reason someone would shout “Abomination!” while killing lovers and it’s one that knocks the narrative out of the world of fictional hates and fictional prejudices into the real hate crimes of  this one. Their murder looks like one kind of hate crime badly disguised as another, and that resonance doesn’t seem contained or under control at all.

Other superhero deaths have irritated me. It might be absurd, and Monsieur Mallah and the Brain are on the absurd side of comics, but Mallah’s death upset me, and not in the good way I associate with comics like The Secret Six. I didn’t write about it at the time because I wasn’t really sure how I felt about my feelings, at least until I read an article by Chris Sims at Comics Alliance.

Sims writes about superhero deaths, event-driven comics and DC’s 2009 crossover, Blackest Night, and its follow up, Brightest Day. Blackest Night is supposed to rectify a problem—that superhero deaths are rendered meaningless if those superheroes return. DC’s solution is to resurrect almost everyone. The dead come back and freak everyone out with their nasty-minded, rotting selves, then there’s a big fight and the DC universe starts over with the new line up in Brightest Day.

But, as Sims writes, there’s a bigger problem beyond whether resurrection or injudicious killing undermines a death’s impact. DC has a tradition of a superhero mantle passed on to a disciple, protege or guy located by power ring. Many fans love this sense of history in the DC universe. They love the progression, for example, from Golden Age Flash Jay Garrick mentoring Silver Age Flash Barry Allen, who sacrifices himself to save the world and is replaced by former Kid Flash, Wally West. Except, the dead keep coming back, including, for example, Barry Allen. And Sims notes now DC is dropping newer characters in favor of older legacy characters, who bore the title in an earlier era. Some “new” heroes have been active for over 20 years and are being pushed aside in favor of their predecessors. And many of the characters being displaced are capes of color because DC attempted to diversify by having women and men of color take up empty or emptied legacies. I agree with Sims that this means that, in the end, this makes for a very white, male, anglo and straight DC universe. And almost as if to prove Sims’ point, shortly after the article was posted, the new Atom, Ryan Choi was not only replaced by old Atom Ray Palmer, but, in Brightest Day, he was killed and his body returned in a matchbox. Yes, a matchbox.

mallah and brain in love

There’s something wrong, a -fecta of some sort (choose your own ordinal number) combining the vectors of nostalgia, continuity, the demand for novelty as well as the market, conflicts between creative teams, and the demographics of readers, creators and editorial boards. In the past, creators would ignore characters they had no interest in using. Now there’s a reckoning going on in DC and it seems all the peripheral characters, who are often the non-white, non-straight, non-male characters , are at risk.

The effects are unintentional, but that only makes it worse as they blindly create something ugly, something that makes me feel a little sick.

~~~

Carol Borden is going to lie down for a while.

Comments

4 Responses to “The Pitiful Death of Monsieur Mallah”

  1. Unreasonable Action
    July 22nd, 2010 @ 10:37 pm

    If that scene were depicted in a major motion picture release, what rating do you think the film would earn?

  2. Carol Borden
    July 23rd, 2010 @ 1:11 pm

    at least an R, i would hope. one of the things i didn’t get to in the piece is my sense that a lot of things that used to be only in Vertigo have bled into regular dc titles. i’ve noticed it especially with The Secret Six, but also with Batwoman. but i also think that writers for Vertigo would’ve actually handled the resonances with/depiction of gaybashing better.

  3. KeithATC
    August 3rd, 2010 @ 1:31 pm

    My constant struggles these days seem to be with the concept of “nostalgia” and the notion that everything has to be made “grim and gritty.” I like to avoid nostalgia when I can, but the insistence on everything being turned increasingly glum and nasty — not as any sort of statement, but purely for commercial or “that’s what everyone’s doing” reasons — leaves me pining against my better judgment for a time when comics and science fiction still valued wonder and imagination over juvenile shock and brutality.
    I agree that it’s a shame that comics have come such a short distance in coming to terms with women, minorities, and homosexuality, and that even as those first awkward, often embarrassing steps were being taken, the whole thing proved far too intimidating, so we retreated back into the realm of square jawed white guys and women with giant breasts and stiletto heel boots. That writers are likely unconscious of the retreat makes it all the sadder.

  4. Willard
    August 27th, 2010 @ 1:01 am

    A lot, maybe most, of my comic reading was done at a time when there was a comics code authority. I was young then and I really enjoyed them but there’s no doubt that the comics of that time had a narrow scope and a naivete. I saw the trend to make comics that appeal to an older audience and I applauded the idea that comics could be an art form that told more mature stories. I haven’t read comics on a regular basis for many years and I’m saddened that it seems a major company like DC thinks that violence and cruelty is all that’s needed to have an adult comic.

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