Avengers of Gowanus
Even before a young Dylan Ebdus, the protagonist of Jonathan Lethem’s astonishing sixth novel The Fortress of Solitude, begins Public School 38 in Brooklyn in the fall of 1970, he receives an informal radical homeschooling from his hippie mother, an early primer of “information he couldn’t yet use: Nixon was a criminal, the Dodgers moved to California, Chinese food gives you a headache, Muhammad Ali resisted the war and went to jail, Hitchcock’s British films were better than his American ones, circumcision was unnecessary but women preferred it.” Rachel Ebdus’s lessons in cool are less judgments than statements of fact: Nixon did turn out to be a criminal, the Dodgers had left Brooklyn for Los Angeles (never mind her misguided views on Hitch). So when late in the novel Rachel’s grown son, moonlighting as a superhero named Aeroman, is compared by a newspaper reporter who follows his vigilante adventures to Batman, Dylan understandably bristles as if in memory of one of his mother’s maxims: “Batman’s DC, and I like Marvel. DC sucks.”
Indeed, Superman, Batman, Aquaman, Wonder Woman, Shazam: DC characters were squares, a lineup of do-gooders, hall monitors, and class presidents awarded advantages of power they hardly needed. In the fatuous Saturday morning cartoon Superfriends they all lived happily together inside the Hall of Justice, a big concrete tent tolerant enough to include even the Wonder Twins and their milquetoast monkey.
Meanwhile, Marvel characters—Spider-Man, Phoenix, Hulk, Silver Surfer, The Thing—were as angsty as any suburban Manchester queer in a Morrissey song. Alliances formed but remained tenuous, like the stitching on their costumes always coming apart after a battle. Indeed, in one popular book, Marvel Team-Up, a pair of unrelated characters—typically Spider-Man and someone else from the Marvel universe—joined forces for a cause that lasted just a single issue. Suspended each month in this contingency, combative personalities could come together to bicker—Didi and Gogo for a day—only to disband on the last page as if they’d never met, like legendary jazz musicians contracted to different labels who record one surreptitious session together under secret identities.
Behind misleading backstories of hard knocks, DC heroes and heroines were ringers, the aristocratic children of mythical utopias (the Amazon, Krypton, Atlantis) waging a war of noblesse oblige on the mean streets of unreal cities with generic names like Metropolis and Gotham. True, Marvel characters tended to be archetypal orphans too, but a good number were New Yorkers, citizens of a city where violent crime was real. Many if not all derived their motivations and their superhuman powers from accidents of technology rather than birthright, or else some metamorphosis horrible enough to make Gregor Samsa blush.1
Dylan Ebdus’s point is that the DC vigilante was legit, a trusted auxiliary of official power as easily summoned as a S.W.A.T. team by a single beam of light shot across the night sky, while a Marvel protagonist usually was an outlaw hunted by the federal government or its military-industrial complex. In this way, Marvel’s signature book—and the undisputed fan favorite in my youth—was The Uncanny X-Men, a tale of teenage “mutants,” who because they possessed prodigious supernatural talents became pariahs among their peers and scapegoats for ambitious right-wing politicians happy to harness their constituents’ hate. Bryan Singer’s film adaptations, X-Men and X2: X-Men United, remain surprisingly faithful to the spirit of Marvel’s civil-rights parable, but bound in length by the Hollywood blockbuster’s two-hour format, these movies cannot convey the fundamental theme of their source: the long ebb and flow of relationships among the book’s tortured players.
Like the nineteenth-century novel, comic books must be understood as a serialized form. However thin the individual volumes, the aggregate provides ample room for narrative arcs to grow intertwining plots. Whereas film adaptations of comic books rely on narrower, accelerated conflicts for their dramatic tension, the serial inherently moves at a slower, ambient pace, if only to keep the customer coming back.2 The novel is no longer serialized, of course, but no matter: Few of us can read all of Anna Karenina or Adam Bede in a single sitting. Each time a reader inserts a bookmark between pages, novels—the long or difficult ones anyway—maintain the integrity of their own embedded caesuras. Thus, in their shared legacy of ritual intermissions, novels such as The Fortress of Solitude continue to have in common with comic books a structural proclivity for stories with large casts and numerous reversals of fortune.
Yet, wonders David Hajdu in the August 14 New York of Review of Books, “How could the comic book, whose very name is a pejorative synonym for the outrageously fantastical, do any justice to the real world? Can a medium so good at depicting the overblown and the infantile really pare itself down and grow up?” Hajdu rejoices that the “crude, sexually regressive, and politically simplistic” comic book form has finally matured into the more sophisticated “nonfiction” graphic novel, such as Art Spiegelman’s Maus or Joe Sacco’s Palestine (fictional graphic novels apparently are the abject, “grandiose spawn of mainstream comics”).3
No apologia can be necessary at this late date—not after Kafka, the Beatles, and David Lynch—for any kind of speculative fiction, comic books included. But it’s worth noting how, like most adults, Hajdu can’t suspend his disbelief because he can’t see past the tights and capes, which are nothing but the trappings and the suits of a genre. The critic Vivian Gornick distinguishes between the situation of a literary work, which she defines as “the context or circumstance, sometimes the plot” from its story, which is “the emotional experience that preoccupies the writer: the insight, the wisdom, the thing one has come to say.”4 To use Gornick’s terms, the battles of superhero dream teams were the situation but never the story of the best Marvel books. Instead, as in a George Eliot novel, the real stories were the vicissitudes of friendship and romance, and the ultimate incommensurability of two souls.
“What if solidarity is the most crippling of our delusions?” asks Mark Sinker in a recent study in The Village Voice of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the television series about a teenage girl and her friends, who form a perpetually unraveling alliance of “Scoobies” to protect the thankless residents of suburban Sunnydale, California from being overrun by dirty, stinky demons. Sinker concludes: “Fellowships always fail—and it’s because they act to deny this, to extend companionship into a bad, unchanging infinity, that the undead are considered demons not people.”5 For Buffy Summers, fellowship means the high-school friends from whom she’s drifting apart; for the X-Men, it means some mutants siding against themselves to spare their ungrateful human aggressors; for Dorothea Brooke, fellowship means her loveless marriage to crusty pedant Casaubon. Sinker’s existential assertion that fellowships always fail might just as easily describe the story if not the situation of Middlemarch as Buffy or The Uncanny X-Men. Or it might describe the story of The Fortress of Solitude.
The situation of Jonathan Lethem’s autobiographical kuntslerroman spans three decades, beginning in 1969. Dylan Ebdus is the sole white boy on Dean Street in the predominantly black neighborhood of Gowanus, eponymously named for its stenchy canal, the only body of water that is “90 percent guns,” as a character remarks in Lethem’s previous novel, Motherless Brooklyn. Aloof father Abraham seals himself in the top-floor studio of their brownstone, devotedly painting Rothkoesque shapes onto a roll of film, but Dylan’s idealistic mother intends for her introverted son to get outside, to grow up as she did—a scrappy Brooklyn street kid, unpampered by suburban safety or private schools. Nudged from backyard to front stoop, Dylan awkwardly assimilates himself into the codes of the children on Dean Street, skillfully mastering the bottle-cap game of skully, while failing a thousand times over to successfully “roof” a Spaldeen rubber ball.
True to the First Law of Lethem that children must be motherless, Rachel without explanation one day abandons her ten-year-old son and her husband; her only traces for the remainder of the novel are the enigmatic, typewritten postcards to Dylan signed “Running Crab.” Simultaneously, another motherless boy arrives on Dean Street with his father, the former lead singer of a once-famous soul group. Mingus Rude, four months older and lifetimes cooler, immediately becomes Dylan’s best friend and his new tutor in a pop cultural curriculum of slang, marijuana, funk, and, most importantly, comic books.
Two afternoons a week, sitting in the dimming light on Dylan’s stoop, never discussing fifth or sixth grade, stuff too basic and mysterious to mention. Instead just paging through, shoulders hunched to protect the flimsy covers from the wind, puzzling out the last dram, the last square inch of information, the credits, the letters page, the copyright, the Sea Monkeys ads […]
Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay (2000) painstakingly re-creates the history of the comics industry through the eyes of two fictional comic-book creators and friends, treating its subject with as much reverence as Lethem does in the above passage. While Chabon, ever the classicist, chooses to tell his story in a formally conventional novel, Lethem, as usual, goes for experimental broke.
Lethem, who has always been an inventive writer of images, describes a relatively insignificant barbershop scene in his third novel, As She Climbed Across the Table (1997):
Soft and I climbed into adjoining chairs, and were cranked into position. The long mirror framed us together, sitting passively with white bibs tucked up around our collars. The bottom edge of this picture was littered with gels, combs, and sprays.
The mirror, preferred trope of the French painter, functions familiarly here: a frame within a frame. Watch Lethem, however, lead the reader’s eye further back to reveal the shelf below—another frame around the central image, but also a “bottom edge” reminiscent of the white borders of negative space that used to surround comic book panels.
Much as Ang Lee, in this past summer’s vastly underrated Hulk, uses vintage film techniques—Wellesian extreme point-of-view shots, quick zooms and slow dissolves, De Palma-quality split screens—to translate both the kinetic texture and the sprawl of the Marvel original, Lethem superimposes over his otherwise highly naturalistic Brooklyn the psychedelic visual vocabulary of the old paneled pages. The reader sees, for example, the “elongated rectangular grid” of the cityscape from an impossibly overhead perspective only to zoom suddenly, in the space of a sentence, down to the pavement and then look back up at a raking angle at which “stoops lean away from the street, the distance between row houses widens to a mute canyon.” On and above every sidewalk lurk phantasmagoric people and objects. Faces are not sleepy, they are “clotted with sleep”; an abandoned building with windows sealed by cinderblocks stares back, a “mummy with blanked eyes and stilled howling mouth.” Words that appear as adjectives and verbs in varying tenses with leitmotif consistency include: crack, crackle, crank. Alliterative with Anglo-Saxon sounds, this is a language of violent visual transformation, appropriately expressionistic for an adolescent’s view of a world in flux (“Dylan never met anyone who wasn’t about to change immediately into someone else”).
Divided by their own mutabilities, Dylan and Mingus have a friendship that lives “in brief windows of time, punctuation to the unspoken sentences of their days” spent with other friends. Race divides them too, aligning them each with their own doppelgänger counterpart: woefully uncool Arthur Lomb, a nerdy white boy who uncomfortably reminds Dylan of his own forced efforts to assimilate, and tall Robert Woolfolk, a bully of unknown origins who hangs with Mingus and consistently threats to “yoke” (local patois for performing a chokehold) Dylan. With the patience and subtlety of E. M. Forster, Lethem lets develop among these four characters an elaborate network of contradictory emotions, the dynamics of which form a context for Dylan and Mingus.
Arthur’s being seen with Mingus was a gift Dylan wouldn’t begrudge him now: It was a thing Arthur needed much worse than Dylan ever had. Let Arthur imagine a parity. In fact, Dylan knew their two friendships with Mingus, his and Arthur’s, were vastly different. Dylan and Mingus lived in a motherless realm, full of secrets. Aeroman, for one thing.
Aeroman is the name of the superhero identity that Dylan adopts with Mingus after a neighborhood drunk who can fly passes on his magical silver pinky ring to Dylan. (Don’t get defrosted, Tolkien fans: Magic rings date back to Herodotus.) Dylan musters the courage to test the ring that summer only above the safe surface of a lake in Vermont, where he learns that his wonky teen body does not possess the dexterity to fly; back in Brooklyn, fearless Mingus finds that he does. So, Team-Up style, Mingus assumes the ring and the costume, while partner Dylan performs the indispensable role of the wandering white boy, entrapping would-be muggers in the ambush of a swooping caped crusader. In addition to Aeroman, the two friends also share a secret criminal identity: Dose, the tag of a prolific graffiti artist.
“I love robbing paint,” explains Sach, a skinny white teenager in a Van Halen T-shirt and oversized glasses, in Style Wars, the 1983 cult documentary of New York City graffiti’s golden age.
We could go one day and get a hundred cans at a time. It’s easy. For me, anyway. It’s, you know, harder on black kids or Spanish kids, ’cause, like, everybody thinks a graffiti writer is black and Puerto Rican. And that’s, like—it’s wrong, you know—a lot of white people are writing.
If, in the Aeroman act, race typecasts Dylan Ebdus in the role of bait, race also renders him invisible inside the basement floor of McCrory’s department store, where he freely stuffs Krylon cans into his empty backpack, undetected by the employees and security guards busy monitoring the orchestrated diversions of his black and Puerto Rican conspirators. (“Today you’re a white boy for a reason.”) While Dylan brings Mingus in on the Aeroman scheme, Mingus, in a balanced symmetry, asks Dylan to help proliferate his Dose tag. Only self-possessed Mingus can be the ring bearer, while Dylan’s “rendition of the Dose icon is clarified, perfected, automatic—in fact cleaner and more sure in its lines than the black kid’s.”
When the ambitions of New York City writers expanded in the 1970s from simple line drawings to the epic, candy-colored balloon-letter murals featured in Style Wars, so too did the practical difficulties of their art. In a 2000 interview included in the Style Wars DVD reissue (Plexifilm), the United States Army sergeant major who once bombed as Skeme reflects on the days when he and his friends sought to destroy all train lines: “It really prepared me for the Army because graffiti was a mission. You had to start from a draft, you had to get your materials, then you had to be dedicated.”
Because graffiti is illegal and because it takes time to bomb the entire length of even a single car at rest in the MTA Ghost Yard, it’s an art best practiced in numbers, even just pairs. Although the targets today are typically buildings not train cars, crews continue to permit an efficient rotation of painter and lookout that is indispensable for the current renaissance of New York graffiti. For example, UFO and Gen II, two of the finest and most prolific of the new painters, and both of the 907 crew, obviously work in tandem because their respective tags frequently appear alongside each other in identical colors—especially where they are Kings, along the buildings that flank the corridor of the elevated J train track, stretching from Delancey Street on the Lower East Side across the Brooklyn Bridge into Bushwick.6
Still, rival tag artists are individuals at heart and crews are perhaps, like all fellowships, no more than an expediency. “You might strike deals with the crews who fought dumb wars for dominance,” explains Mingus Rude, “but this was only to free you to practice your art.”
For a few halcyon years the Aeroman-Dose partnership nullifies the differences between Dylan and Mingus and joins them in the happy delusions of their solidarity. Yet, in an irony not lost on Mingus, even their shared alter ego remains divided against itself—one part hero, one part criminal. “Half the yoke-artists they clocked were chumps Dose knew from around the projects, anyway,” Mingus laments in retrospect.7
By the novel’s midpoint, it’s clear John Donne was wrong. All men, or at least all of Brooklyn’s motherless fathers and sons, are islands. Eager to escape Gowanus for Camden College (in a nice nod to the Bret Easton Ellis oeuvre), Dylan turns his back on his friends. Mingus asserts his own independence by adventuring out as Aeroman without Dylan, culminating in a solo flight in which he paints an extravagantly large Dose tag high on the facade of the twenty-six-story jail in downtown Brooklyn, a looming fortress of many solitudes.
When the nostalgically exuberant tone of Fortress gives way to a clear-eyed, elegiac one in the last half of the novel, the change is so stark at first that one is tempted to fault Lethem for writing a disappointing second act. But the times are to blame, not the messenger and his prose. The year is 1999 and Dylan Ebdus, now a music critic hoping to become a Hollywood screenwriter, returns to Gowanus, which to his dismay has gentrified as tony Boerum Hill. The sad events of the intermittent years, the 1980s and 1990s (I refuse to spoil them here) are leaked in episodic flashbacks.
Not coincidentally, the second half of Fortress feels something like Dylan’s derisive description of the DC milieu, “a laughable, flattened reality.” The Fortress of Solitude takes its title, of course, from the solitary retreat of DC’s franchise figure, Superman. From the 1950s through the 1980s, the moral ambiguity of the Marvel universe more accurately reflected the confusing and beautiful plurality of American life than the flattened reality of Cold War ideology. When The Fortress of Solitude ends, in the fall of 1999, Dylan’s realization that solidarities can forge not only friendships but false enemies will leave him alone in an America where you’re either with us or against us.