October 24th, 2008
Sadistic torture really isn’t very nice. It’s everything that society tries to force under the carpet (unless the situation calls for real men like Jack Bauer). It represents total freedom, action unrestricted by boundaries (read: bodies), total control, total transgression, captured alongside the omega of abjection and suffering. The idealised torture chamber is a space where these limits – which are so very dangerous and threatening and repulsive – can be fully explored, and there will always be people who see the allure in that. It’s the blood red abyss beyond the brink of the acceptable, but like all good acrophobics we can’t help but look down, perhaps we’ll see something we like.
You’ve all seen Hostel, right?
Which brings me, in my typically perverse fashion, on to Spider-Man, because, you see, the Spider-Man of my childhood was forever tangling with people who wanted to strap him to a table and hurt him, and I’ve always found Spider-Man’s enemies more frightening than, say, Batman’s for that very reason. Batman’s foes for all their horror have a kind of archetypal status. I find it hard to imagine the Penguin or Two Face actually setting out to harm Batman in the clinical way that Dr Octopus wants to harm Spider-Man. Their relationship with Bats is more theatrical, in some important ways more fictitious: built around symbolic clashes, and driven by grand themes. Even their deathtraps have an air of performance about them. The Green Goblin on the other hand, he loathes Spider-Man. His schemes are only ever ostensibly about crime – no, fundamentally they’re about reveling in Peter Parker’s pain. The closest Batman’s rogues get to this intimate personal brutality is Bane’s seemingly erotic obsession with “breaking the Bat”, but on close inspection even this dynamic smacks more of mythology than of a relationship between humans. It’s not personal, it’s epic, it’s Batman’s descent into some muscle encrusted hell, it’s… Knightfall! The key to understanding Spider-Man is the importance given to the human component. Spider-Man is iconic, but Marvel has always gone to great pains to paint him as a troubled teenager/man first and superhero second. Naturally the kinds of enemies faced by a soapy character like Spidey will have a slightly more earthbound ambiance than DC’s fantastical stable. Don’t think for a minute that I’m suggesting that they’re realistic – that would be absurd, they’re patently not – or that they have swapped all iconic power for believability. All I’m saying is that their relationships with Spiderman are less about mythic forces and more about human motives and red-blooded emotions: revenge, anger, hatred. These drives are often, quite literally, monstrously exaggerated – see Venom for proof – but they boil down to something recognisably human. When all’s said and done it’s about sweatily beating the living hell out of the ol’ Webhead, or, if that’s not your style, killing his girlfriend or his aunty.
Seriously, flick open a Spider-Man comic, or run through a Spider-Man cartoon and you’ll see what I mean: Spider-Man is forever being hammered to a bloody desperate pulp. The other week my two-year-old son was demanding that I find something Spidey related on Youtube. Inevitably we stumbled across clip after clip extracted from the 90s cartoon series, and every one of them featured Spidey having his arse handed to him, and that’s when he wasn’t being explicitly tortured. My earliest memory of reading a Spider-Man comic hails from some time in the early 80s and the thing that sticks in my mind isn’t a feat of amazing Spider strength or even his burgeoning relationship with the Black Cat (although that’s in there. Yup), it’s Doc Ock’s obsessive, lusty focus on “tearing Spider-Man limb from limb”. I was a well read child, I knew what limbs were, I knew that what Otto Octavius was frothing about was a particularly hideous form of torture. Unless he was talking figuratively, of course, but why would we assume that, particularly given the fact that later on in the story Spidey’s actions mirror Dr Octopus’s stated aim when he opts to rip the good doctor’s tentacles from his torso? The rending was actualised, it’s just that, for obvious reasons, Doc Ock had to stand in as a proxy.
As far as I can see, physical, psychological and even existential (see Mephisto’s recent deal with Peter Parker) agonies inflicted upon the titular character are one of the defining features of the Spider-Man books. Part of appeal, part of what we pay for, is to see Spidey brutally punished, and punished regularly. We want Spider-Man to suffer because suffering is a fundamental part of the character’s representational structure. To put it simply, we were all brought up to expect Peter Parker’s tears and blood, as much as we brought up to expect his wisecracks and his emotional entanglements. The subtext here is that running through the Spider-Man comic, and threading through the Spider-Man character itself, is a sadomasochistic dynamic, kept in check not by agreements between consenting adults, but by the realities of publishing ongoing, mainstream comic books. In the absence of those constraints the Spider-Man Doc Ock relationship, say, feels like it would go off in some bloody strange directions, as I’m sure slash fiction writers could attest. This suggestion of unconstrained S&M, those endless beatings, combined with Peter Parker’s frequent low moods, and the fact that he always seems to operate from the backfoot in his relationships (inter-personal and otherwise) infects Spider-Man with the aura of the victim, and makes it hard not to see his agonising misfortunes as, at least in part, the product of his own self-loathing and twisted desire. It’s certainly the case that it’s only through being horribly tested that the character ever seems to find his inner strength and hit some emotional highs, and, you know, not always!
So with all that in mind I want you to take a look at this
Interesting isn’t it? I mean, just what is going on there? What is Spider-Man doing entangled in those powder blue straps? What’s that weird suit all about? Why is Jonah so uncharacteristically joyful? Perhaps most importantly, what the fuck is that white stuff spaffing out of Spider-Man’s wrists? Do you – as they say – see?
Ostensibly Dr Spencer Smythe’s Spider-Slayer’s are a fairly dull affair: remote controlled robots commissioned by J Jonah Jameson, and designed for the sole purpose of hunting down and capturing Spider-Man. As far as JJJ’s wacky anti-spidey schemes go it’s not amongst the craziest. Okay, It’s strange, but the idea that Jonah would enjoy bringing the Spider down single-handedly isn’t exactly news, and the notion that he’d use a joystick to do it, while perhaps a little anachronistic, sits well enough with what we know about the character. But for some reason the Spider-Slayer has always had an appeal that transcends any humble plot synopsis, as evidenced by the many times creative teams that have brought the concept back. Perhaps it’s something to do with the name, or maybe it’s tied to the some of the striking (for lack of a better word) character designs on offer. Whatever the driving factors I can see the appeal. To be clear, in my case I’m not talking about all the Spider-Slayers here, I’m just talking about this one, the Spider-Slayer Mark 1. To home in even closer, I’m talking about that very image and the ways in which it heavily colours my reading of the issue in question. I’m riffing on a vibe, essentially. On how the issue, shorn of its soap-operatic story elements, makes me feel, and ideas it conjures.
Let me start by stating the obvious. It’s all a bit kinky, isn’t it? Spider-Man, ensnared in probing tentacles, squirts white stuff over a grinning J Jonah Jameson’s face, who, I should add, seems to be wearing some kind of special gimp-suit*, complete with sparkily erect antenna. Yes, I know it’s the product of a more innocent time, and that its creators are unlikely to have intended such a reading, but I like to think that the readers of Mindless Ones are prepared to put authorial intent aside when it gets in the way of a better or more interesting interpretation. And this sure is a more interesting interpretation – this is bondage Spidey, submissive Spidey; This is Jonah and his hard American crew-cut as some archetypal dom, as Spider-Man’s Boss; This is a fever-pitch expression of their dynamic, punctuated by white-hot sprays of spunk. This is completely crazy shit put out by the House of Ideas, the comic company best known (today) for it’s slavish adherence to a cohesive world-view and continuity, and for it’s whole-hearted embracing of televisual storytelling styles and techniques. Right here, in this picture, we can see Marvel slipping off the straight edge and into the wonderful world of barminess. What’s even better is that the comic’s interior is full of images and elements that feed into this line of thinking. Early on in the story we have Jonah excitedly getting to grips with his joystick as he takes control of the Slayer for the first time, later we have lengthy, sweaty sequences where Spider-Man attempts to flee the Slayer’s clutches, which, given the story’s inevitable conclusion – a broken Spidey trapped, exhausted in Jonah’s robo-straps – I’m afraid I couldn’t help but read as foreplay.
But what really interests me here is how this reading factors into the wider Spidey context discussed above. A context which in part catalysed my thoughts and is in part reinforced by them. If Spider-Man is haunted by a brand of sado-masochism that lurches, in its most excessive moments, towards framing the character as a willing victim and (many of) his enemies as sadistic torturers, then the cover above and the comic housed within it seem like an explicit, if in some ways tame, articulation of that dynamic. Clearly pure brutality isn’t on offer, there are no blood, guts or viscera on display. What there is is imagery that points towards forms of human interaction designed to safely explore roles and activity (torturer victim, master slave interactions) which many of us consider to be taboo. Strangely, by incorporating iconography that brings to mind bondage play, the Spider-Slayer simultaneously flags up and accentuates Spider-Man’s kinkier elements, while making them more palatable, fitter for mass market consumption – removing the need for all that icky gore and brute psychological aggression. Besides, we’re so inured to violence that most of us don’t normally look too closely at what it might be implying, perhaps we need the presence of a gimp-suit to get us to pay attention.
Looking closer at the comic, however, it strikes me that the Spider-Man Spider-Slayer dynamic goes further into uncomfortable territory than is immediately apparent. There’s something nightmarishly incongruous about Jonah’s leering grin rolling around on the Slayer’s bulbous video screen. Then there’s those creepy, infinitely extendible legs and flailing tentacles set into the black carapace-come-spacesuit. You could be asleep in your apartment bedroom 20 stories off the tarmac and you wouldn’t be safe from this giggling octopoid monstrosity. It could be flapping on your window right now. It doesn’t sleep or eat and, as Spidey discovered to his horror, it just won’t stop coming, it’s relentless. And I do so love relentless villains, they have a dreadful purity about them. These are the creatures that plague our darkest dreams, the closest fictional characters get to embodying death. Sadako is relentless, Michael Myers is relentless, the horror that rises out of the grave just when you think it’s all over and credits roll is relentless. Cancer, that’s relentless. So, yeah, the Spider-Slayer’s relentlessness automatically confers on it a kind of transcendent status. But also, when seen within the broader themes of this essay, it serves to make the weird stuff more visible. There’s no criminal activity to obscure the view, just an implacable inevitability. I would go as far as to say that even the human motivations that lie behind the comics events evaporate in the face of the Slayer’s inhuman pursuit. Despite the fact that JJ is at the controls, it’s easy to see the Spider-Slayer as an autonomous entity, Jonah’s face just some demented authoritarian abstraction. The thing ultimately comes across some sort of S&M Terminator that won’t rest until it’s had its wicked way with the naughty Parker boy.
So what am I saying here, that I want to read the Spider-Man comic equivalent of torture porn starring the Spider-Slayer as the pervy antagonist? Well, no, not quite. I just feel that there’s more to be done here than shuffling out the latest robo-insect and sicing him on Petey. In fact I’m not sure I’m really very interested in having any Spider-Slayer design supersede the Spider-Slayer Mk 1 – its just so fucking bizarre and scary. We have no references points for something that looks like that today, as a result it oozes tenticular otherness. It’s so wrong, such a mess of incongruities and outlandish elements. That’s not to say I wouldn’t like to see other Spider-Slayer designs, on the contrary I want to see an insectoid army of the twisted fuckers, but I want them to hail from the same place as Frank Quitely’s wild sentinel designs. I want them to make the reader’s skin crawl. But all that’s largely a means to a grander end because ultimately I do want to tap into that S&M vibe that lurks just off the edge of the spider-panel, in the way that Grant Morrison tapped into the seething Jungian maelstrom that haunted the Fantastic Four books of my childhood when he wrote 1234. The Spider-Slayers’ quivering limbs should plague Peter’s fever-dreams, they should crawl out from under his bed at night. They should disappear the objects of his romantic affections, and constantly look to ensnare (embrace?) him from the shadows. I’m talking about bringing something of the Giger Alien into play here, or maybe even Burrough’s Naked Lunch, regardless of whether they have a human ‘driver’ or not. Actually, right there’s another opportunity: I like the idea that the Slayers infect their controllers with an unbridled sadistic impulse – not through magic (not the fireball variety, anyway) or through some kind of mind control but by virtue of the fact that they allow the operator to act vicariously, without fear of immediate consequence. What I really want to see is a Spider-Man who can’t get them out of his head, who in some subtle way invites their relentless chase, and that chase, when it finally comes, should be as hard and brutal as his last pounding at the hands of Morlun or the Scorpion.
And I want the suggestion to be there that on some level, secretly, Spidey enjoys it.
I know we do.
*I appreciate that gimp-suits are more often than not worn by submissives, but I would like to suggest (possibly to the horror of all you dedicated and thoughtful and more knowledgeable BDSM practitioners out there) that gimp-suit imagery signposts BDSM activity in the popular imagination more than it delineates roles.
See you in a couple of weeks for my second Spiderogue’s Review: Mysterio (or why the Marvel Universe is secretly demented part 2, or why Kevin Smith is wrongness part 1)