Thursday, July 06, 2006

The Civil War comic series speaks to Americans of the divisions


Cheng Tju (or CT Lim as he likes to be known) used to write with me for M3 magazine (while they were still around). We had some good times interviewing people and getting freebies while on the music journalism beat. Highlights of our stint together were interviewing Sonic Youth and Lori Carson. We had some good times together.

CT has since gone on to bigger and better things. Most prominently, he's finished a Masters degree exploring the history of woodcut political cartoon from Malaya and he's also started writing for prominent publications like the Straits Times and The Comics Journal. He's given me permission to re-publish what I think is a thought-provoking essay on how popular culture can be reflections of wider political and social occurrences.


COMIC SUPERHEROES' CIVIL WAR'

BY LIM CHENG TJU
For The Straits Times

AFTER more than 40 years, Spiderman has decided to unmask himself and reveal to the rest of the world that he is Peter Parker. What could be seen as a publicity stunt by Marvel Comics, publisher of the Spiderman comic books, for its annual summer crossover event (meaning you have to buy various series to get the whole story) is actually a clever usage of popular culture.

The revealing of Spiderman's secret identity is part of a larger storyline
called Civil War. In this, a fight gone wrong has led to the American public turning against the superheroes. The government quickly calls for the registration and unmasking of all heroes and vigilantes. Battle lines are drawn, with the heroes split into two opposing camps. On one side, you have those in favour of the enactment of the Superhuman Registration Act, seen as the way forward for heroes - led by Iron Man - to do what they have to do. The other side, led surprisingly by Captain America, is against government control of heroism. They start an underground resistance movement. You can guess which side Spiderman is on.

Granted that this is not a new concept in comic books as it has been
explored before in Kingdom Come and even the X-Men series and movies, Civil War's take on this 'brother-versus-brother' theme is timely. The only thing more exciting to comic fans than a slugfest between the good guys and the bad guys is a slugfest between the good guys and the good guys. For example, who is stronger - Superman or the Hulk?

Of course, the Civil War series is a throwback to the American Civil War of
the 19th century, which forged a new destiny for the United States. It is also a reference to the public divide created during the McCarthy era of the 1950s. But closer to our times, Civil War speaks to Americans of the divisions within their society over the actions of the US government both at home and abroad. A more explicit statement against America's interference in the Middle East is found in The Ultimates, where the tables are turned on the heroes after they cross the line to invade a rogue state, expanding beyond the jurisdiction of what constitutes 'homeland security'. Indeed, in The New Avengers, the bad guys are the government agency for national security. Popular culture has the ability to entertain and reflect public sentiment in the most interesting and accessible manner. Sadly, we see less of that in Singapore.

Last week, as the media was awash with news of Spiderman's unveiling, I
visited the Fiction@Love exhibition at the Singapore Art Museum. The show is said to explore the 'concerns related to the satire and fantasy of love' through the contemporary medium of 'Animamix Art' - that is, a combination of comics, graphic design, animation, manga and anime in art. But it didn't quite work. The tension between high-brow art and low-brow pop culture remained in the works displayed. Whatever the message was that the show attempted to convey, it is doubtful if the audience grasped it. Nothing was more telling than the interactive tour, which featured a reading of the exhibits using the texts of Neil Gaiman and Hermann Hesse. No one in the audience of about 20 had heard of either of these authors. This disjuncture between how popular culture is reinterpreted in the Singapore Art Museum and how a popular medium like comic books is used to reflect public sentiment in America provides much food for thought. Recent discussions on Singapore's culture and identity have not considered the role that can be played by contemporary pop culture of films and graphic images. As Spiderman has reminded us, pop culture can be expressions of not just who we are but of what we are thinking about.

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