Is that a coconut in your arm, or are you just glad to see me? … 15 centuries of German perfidy edition

by John Holbo on April 15, 2007

Obviously the reason why old comics provoke a certain sort of joke is the underwear on the outside, plus dialogue that, apparently, dare not speak the name of whatever the hell it is the characters are trying to discuss. But sometimes this can really be taken to extremes:

coconut.jpg

What are we supposed to think? Johnny Thunder is a gay robot? But this isn’t really what I wanted to talk about tonight.

When we left our heroes, Hawkman was setting us straight about the Treaty of Versailles. But let me give you a bit of backstory.

Honorary Justice Society members, the Flash and Green Lantern, drop in for a visit. Hawkman proudly holds up a newspaper with the headline “Sergeant Dick Amber given congressional medal of honor – entire nation honors hero”. Wonder Woman encourages Hawkman to tell the story, in the hopes that the Honorary Members will agree to become Fighting Members again, as opposed to mere bicep squeezees.

HAWKMAN
A troubled neighbor who knew me only as Carter Hall brought me a pressing problem. His boy, about to be drafted, refused to see any reason for fighting … he was not cowardly … he was just confused … I went to see him.

DICK AMBER
No, I’m not afraid to fight! I just can’t see where this war with Germany is our war?

CARTER HALL [HAWKMAN]
Hmmm, suppose I told you that giving in to Germany would inevitably bring us back to the dark ages.

DICK AMBER
Dark Ages? Rather strong talk, Mr. Hall. Are you implying that Germans have no moral values?

CARTER HALL
Suppose I arrange for you to meet a group I’ve done some research for … The Justice Society! Let them explain things to you …

[Changing in secret to Hawkman, I took Dick Amber to the Justice Society of America … ]

HAWKMAN
Members, this is Dick Amber … He’s about to be drafted. He loves his country but doesn’t see any point in our war with Germany …

DICK AMBER:
It’s just that I … I resent being fooled!


createdequal1.jpg

Wildcat provides a helpful history lesson:

deathto.jpg

This and that. But engaging Wildcat in dialectic is like taking a cold shower with 10 kittens tied to your arms and legs. (Plus Hawkman on the Treaty of Versailles.)

DICK AMBER
No! It’s unfair .. you keep giving you your view of things … The German view may express things differently .. and equally truthfully.

HAWKMAN
Dick! If there were only some way to prove the truth … make you see it …

Fortunately Hawkman’s plea has the effect of awakening “in the cold, limitless reaches of the outer void … a shape created by the concentrated thoughts of decent men”. It is … the Conscience of Man. She looks like Snow White, and has a magic wand, with which she sends the Justice Society and Dick Amber back in time to learn that Germans … are … always … evil. (They meet various famous Germans. Oddly, not Kant. Seeing the Sage of Königsberg go toe-to-toe with Wildcat ? “How did you defeat him?” “He had me on the ropes, but then he started monologuing …”)

From comments to my previous post, I learn that some soul has scanned in the last part of the issue, in which Johnny Thunder punches out some Nazis. Hawkman and Wildcat decide that, basically, the trouble with Germans is that they are convinced their way of thinking is superior, so they can pronounce concerning the destiny of races, etc. As Hawkman editorializes: “What colossal conceit.” Yes, concludes Wildcat: “No doubt about it … the present German manner of living and thinking is … doomed.”

Now, all this is interesting. Please feel free to discuss. And men of good will can disagree about what part is the funniest. For my part – I suspect this may be a minority opinion – the funniest bit is the idea that the Justice Society would hire civilians to research the nature of justice for them. It’s so crazy it just might work. Do you ever think about how no one in, like, the Justice League, even has any actual justice powers. Never gets bitten by a radioactive philosopher and acquires a tingling justice sense? There are no heroes with the uncanny ability to settle complex moral disputes – to bend the fearsome steel of moral dilemmas and make the lines straight. Alright, I confess: I use this joke in one of my Plato lectures. So I have a graphic all lined up to go.
socraticsense.jpg
This is touched on, in a different sort of way, when Johnny Thunder mentions that Conscience has given him some of her powers – including increased smarts, but mostly increased ability to punch Germans, it would appear.

{ 39 comments }

1

Ginger Yellow 04.15.07 at 2:18 pm

Obviously the reason why old comics provoke a certain sort of joke is the underwear on the outside, plus dialogue that, apparently, dare not speak the name of whatever the hell it is the characters are trying to discuss.

I take it you’re familiar with Superdickery.com. It’s all about that sort of thing. It’s also funny as hell.

2

derek 04.15.07 at 2:41 pm

The American thing about wanting to pretend they were the aggressors against Germany instead of vice versa is too bizarre for me. I mean, usually a country feels good about the fact that it was the other guy who started the war.

3

wolfgang 04.15.07 at 2:51 pm

I begin to understand why WW2 was won and Iraq will be lost. Nowadays when a “boy [..] refused to see any reason for fighting … he was not cowardly … he was just confused”, there is no superhero around to explain it all.

4

Matt 04.15.07 at 3:03 pm

Also, Johnny thunder apparently has a stragely huge hand.

5

John Holbo 04.15.07 at 3:09 pm

Or maybe Green Lantern has a really tiny bicep.

6

Belle Waring 04.15.07 at 3:16 pm

or maybe the “artist” lacks any conception of vanishing-point perspective.

7

Ben Alpers 04.15.07 at 3:23 pm

From comments to my previous post, I learn that some soul has scanned in the last part of the issue,

Actually, the entire issue is scanned in. Page 1 is available here. You can probably figure out the URLs for the ensuing pages.

8

Rich Puchalsky 04.15.07 at 3:33 pm

“the funniest bit is the idea that the Justice Society would hire civilians to research the nature of justice for them. It’s so crazy it just might work.”

Obviously this is every philosopher’s secret dream, going all the way back to Aristotle and his giant robot, Alexander.

9

John Holbo 04.15.07 at 3:39 pm

Thanks, ben. I missed that. Well, a bit of a questionable copyright situation. A few frames here and there, for lofty critical purposes such as mine – that’s fair use!

10

SG 04.15.07 at 3:40 pm

Wolfgang, what are you suggesting? Which superhero explained the need to fight the Nazis to the Soviets? Was it Hitler himself? Are you privy to a secret Russian comic in which super-Stalin explains how bad the Germans are to a wavering Soviet youth?

11

John Holbo 04.15.07 at 3:41 pm

Secret? Rich, as soon as my giant robot is up and running, everyone is going to pay, big-time. They said I was mad to propose a modest mix of Isaiah Berline-style liberalism and Nietzscheanism, with a few extra bits tossed in as a sop to utilitarian intuitions about the greater social good. Mad! I tell you! Mad! But now I’ll show them!

12

Profane 04.15.07 at 4:55 pm

‘In the Middle’s’ take on this:

http://jjcohen.blogspot.com/2007/04/low-rent-eisenstein.html

Cheers,
Profane

13

Daniel Nexon 04.15.07 at 5:34 pm

Ah, all this brings back memories of a graduate-school joke concerning Haberman, leader of the H-men, and their enemy/ally Foucaultio…. It was, in retrospect, probably a net positive for humanity that we never found someone to illustrate it.

14

josh 04.15.07 at 9:06 pm

“They said I was mad to propose a modest mix of Isaiah Berline-style liberalism and Nietzscheanism, with a few extra bits tossed in as a sop to utilitarian intuitions about the greater social good.”

You mean George Kateb is your robot creation, John? He always seemed so lifelike to me …
(Ok, so he’d probably claim to be Emersonian rather than Nietzschean — but that doesn’t fool me …)

15

josh 04.15.07 at 9:08 pm

P.S. Or maybe Richard Flathman? Or Bernard Williams, come to think of it — a veritable robot-army …

16

Barry 04.15.07 at 9:53 pm

Posted by Belle Waring: “…or maybe the “artist” lacks any conception of vanishing-point perspective.”

Belle, if that *is* your real name…Real Americans don’t need a Nihilistic perspective that has ‘vanishing points’. Only Ruskies need to ‘vanish’ points of view with which they disagree.

17

Jacob T. Levy 04.15.07 at 10:30 pm

You mean George Kateb is your robot creation, John? He always seemed so lifelike to me …
(Ok, so he’d probably claim to be Emersonian rather than Nietzschean—but that doesn’t fool me …)

George denies that there’s much of a difference between the two– he has a very Emersonian reading of Nietzsche, and vice-versa.

I can’t stop laughing at the Kateb-Flathman-Williams (and Rorty should be there, too) robot army. Plus the justice-sense graphic…

18

Michael 04.15.07 at 10:33 pm

[B]it of a questionable copyright situation. A few frames here and there, for lofty critical purposes such as mine – that’s fair use!

Yes. The community itself has a “no more than half an issue” rule, which probably doesn’t pass legal muster by itself, but gets worse when subsequent posts include the rest of the issue.

It goes to show what a micky mouse affair the 20th century was for copyright. If this had gone out of copyright in 42 or 56 years, it would be in the public domain and a part of the culture to be discussed and distributed without violating the law.

19

Dr Paisley 04.15.07 at 10:39 pm

All this reminded me of a Hallowe’en persona I created for a party at least 15 years ago:

“By day a humble philosopher, by night the bane of Athenean evil-doers–it’s The Socratic Hornet!”

“Let’s roll, Plato!”

Won a prize, even.

20

Timothy Scriven 04.16.07 at 12:16 am

Speaking of superhero philosophers:

http://homepages.nyu.edu/~iav202/powers/powers.html

My favourite:

“Notes: W. V. Quine™ is a ruthless warrior who always follows the Maxim of Maximal Mutilation. When he races into battle, his war cry “GAVAGAI!” pierces the air, terrifying his foes, even though no one knows what it means. “

21

Jacob T. Levy 04.16.07 at 1:02 am

I’m always amazed by just how bad the artwork got during the actual war years of the Golden Age. It’s one thing that male baseball became unplayable when all the able-bodied men were gone; but I would have thought that competent artists would have been tolerably well-represented among the insufficiently-able-bodied.

I can’t decide whether the issue is utterly weirder than I was prepared for (the Teutonic Knights? WTF? the Weimar Republic is a fake from beginning to end?) or surprisingly sophisticated– it mentions Jews twice, which I’ve never noticed a wartime comic doing before; talks about things like “the Prussian Junker class” that I wouldn’t expect American ten-year old boys to ever have heard of; and actually tries to walk a balance between blaming the German ruling class and not saying the German people were innocents.

22

Seth Finkelstein 04.16.07 at 1:37 am

Regarding: “There are no heroes with the uncanny ability to settle complex moral disputes”

Counter-example: Captain Marvel (original version) has as one of his powers “The Wisdom Of Solomon”.

It’s sometimes suggested by fans that this works nicely as an in-story explanation for always choosing the right course of action in the fog of battle.

23

Jon H 04.16.07 at 2:19 am

There’s always the series “Action Philosophers”…

Plato Smash!

24

John Holbo 04.16.07 at 3:24 am

Jacob, you are right that it gets even funnier if I give it a bit more credit. Wildcat and co. don’t actually say all Germans are evil, just all German leaders. (Germans themselves are submissive cattle, which isn’t exactly complimentary, but doesn’t strictly call them evil.)

And you are right that it seems commendable that the Jews get mentioned twice.

25

Russell Arben Fox 04.16.07 at 3:33 am

I can’t stop laughing at the Kateb-Flathman-Williams (and Rorty should be there, too) robot army.

Laugh you should, because I’m going to send my Taylor-Walzer-Barber-Miller army out after them, and they’ll kick their ass.

26

lw 04.16.07 at 3:37 am

I guess I’m missing a joke– Will Eisner’s Spirit was morally complex and well-drawn throughout the US’s participation in WW II. Does choosing panels like this one lead to anything new or interesting to say about wartime public art?

This was a good one,
though short on irony.

27

Rich B. 04.16.07 at 4:39 am

Do you ever think about how no one in, like, the Justice League, even has any actual justice powers. Never gets bitten by a radioactive philosopher and acquires a tingling justice sense?

Oh, come on! And in the Justice Society itself, no less. You certainly remember “The Spectre” — dead cop by day, ineluctible force of Justice by night — or something like that. By the 1990s, he was wrestling with issues of Justice of a monthly basis, I believe at one point threatening to kill the entire state of New York if they carried out a wrongful — but procedurally proper — execution.

There were also such gay-camp classics as “Are there homosexuals in heaven?” asked imploringly of gay-angel-in-loincloth.

http://content.imagesocket.com/images/spec04d.jpg

28

John Holbo 04.16.07 at 6:11 am

Rich B, the fact that the Spectre is totally confused is no argument against my point. It isn’t that heroes have never wrestled – usually ineptly, yet self-seriously – with ‘tough questions’. Rather, no one has ever thought to stipulate that someone has special ‘justice powers’ – i.e. a heightened capacity to tell right from wrong.

Before I forget to mention it: the Kateb thing made me laugh at my own joke (which is usually considered rude, but I’ll make an exception in my case.)

29

josh 04.16.07 at 7:19 am

“Laugh you should, because I’m going to send my Taylor-Walzer-Barber-Miller army out after them, and they’ll kick their ass.”
Well of course they would — because they’d be a proper army, and actually cooperate, rather than each going off in his own direction. (On the other hand, I suspect that Taylor, Miller and Walzer — and Rorty for that matter — would actually be somewhat useless in a fight, since they’d spend all of their time explaining why the two robot armies didn’t really disagree that much after all.)
Now, if your army included a robot Alasdair MacIntyre, Russell, that would be a scary prospect.
Ok, I may be carrying this a little too far …

30

Seth Finkelstein 04.16.07 at 8:59 am

The Spectre is vengeance, not justice – arguably he simply has a variant form of the “danger sense” that some characters have – in his case, it’s a “murder sense”.

I imagine having only the power to detect injustice and to know what should be done, would result in a pretty frustrated person, especially if the power didn’t extend to world peace. Essentially you’d have a pundit who always had the right ethical plan – but that’s no guarantee of anyone caring. Most superheroes are portrayed as right by definition anyway.

There’s also the modern Wonder Woman’s “truth” power.

31

MR. Bill 04.16.07 at 10:36 am

I can’t find it online, but
B Kilban had a cartoon of “Philosophers looting a small town”…see http://www.coldbacon.com/kliban3.htm for a citation…

32

DrBB 04.16.07 at 11:30 am

…talks about things like “the Prussian Junker class” that I wouldn’t expect American ten-year old boys to ever have heard of;

Bet they’d have heard of the Luftwaffe warplanes of that name though. When I first encountered the Junkers in a history class it was one of those “Oh, that’s where that name comes from” moments.

33

Russell Arben Fox 04.16.07 at 1:26 pm

My robot Alasdair McIntyre, Josh, would be in the background, Professor X-like, mentally discerning the emotivist weaknesses in his opponents and directing his army accordingly. Taylor would be the Scott Summer/Cyclops point-man actually managing battlefield tactics, besides wrecking havoc with his awesome Canadian super-strength and bilingualism. Barber would be the Wolverine-type, ready to rip up his opponents with berserker-strong democratic relish, but sufficiently a danger to his own side as well that Walzer has to keep an eye on him at all times.

34

ajay 04.16.07 at 2:55 pm

drbb: The Junkers aircraft were actually produced by a company founded by a man called Hugo Junkers. They’re not named after the Prussian noble class; that’s just a coincidence.

35

Tracy W 04.16.07 at 9:38 pm

Rather, no one has ever thought to stipulate that someone has special ‘justice powers’ – i.e. a heightened capacity to tell right from wrong.

If you have a character who can fly, any half-way decent artist can draw them arms outstretched high above the ground. If you have a character who can destroy buildings with a single blow of his fists, provide the artist with some photos of a boxer and some photos from a demolition company and say go to it. If you have a character who can always tell when someone is lying, then the writer simply needs to keep clear in their own head what’s true in the context of the story and who has a reason to lie about it – skills writers have developed for centuries (look at Othello) – without needing superpowers.

However, if you are going to write a character who has a special justice sense you actually need to not only give them complex moral situations but come up with the perfect solution. This is a bit more complicated and demanding. So I think the reason why no one has given a character special justice powers is that no one has given a writer special justice powers.

36

Other Josh 04.17.07 at 12:15 am

Surely the JSA character who comes closest to having an alleged “justice sense” is not the Spectre but the Champion of Fair Play!

37

paul 04.17.07 at 12:24 am

re 13:

I wonder if this provides additional insight into Cordwainer Smith’s “Scanners Live in Vain”. (Ultimately a disappointing story, perhaps because of the concordance between style and substance)

38

josh 04.17.07 at 4:57 am

“However, if you are going to write a character who has a special justice sense you actually need to not only give them complex moral situations but come up with the perfect solution. This is a bit more complicated and demanding. So I think the reason why no one has given a character special justice powers is that no one has given a writer special justice powers.”
Or, as Plato might have said, we will only have a special justice sense if all the comic-book writers become philosophers, or all the philosophers comic book writers?
Funny, Russell — I always picture Michael Walzer in more of the Professor X role, largely hanging back from direct combat, guiding others sagely. I think of MacIntyre as more of a Nightcrawler character — the Catholicism, and ability to be one place, and suddenly appear in another (whether the places be geographical, or philosophical). Barber as Wolverine definitely works.

39

fardels bear 04.19.07 at 3:59 am

I wish Wildcat would’ve been there when I was trying to work my way through the Daniel Goldhagen/Christopher Browning debate on “Ordinary Germans” v. “Ordinary Men.” He would have made it all clear.

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