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Friday, September 7, 2012

The Shadow of the Gunman and the Swordsman: Golgo 13 and Conan the Barbarian

Pop culture says a lot about a country, and the pop culture that best gives someone an idea about the country's mindset is rarely the culture that people praise. It's usually not the Pulitzer Prize winners or the Oscar winners that we look back on as time capsules of what America was like. It's the Valley of the Dolls and Dirty Harry.

Whenever people (usually conservatives) attack academia, it's for writing papers on TV or comic books or music or movies with little Harold Bloom-approved value. What's the value, your ivory tower-hating good ol' regular American pundit might say, of writing about the semiotics of Law and Order or the post-capitalist structuralism of Justin Bieber?

And I know this might seem like a straw-man kind of thing, but then again, take Naomi Schaefer Riley. Please.

Anyway, already-dated digs at blogosphere dust-ups aside, my point is, what we say in our trashy and/or guilty pleasures and what, more importantly, the public enjoys in their trashy and/or guilty pleasures tells the observer a lot about the public values. It hints at what is in their hearts, instead of what they claim to think.

Looking at Law and Order, for example, what's important is not the mild liberalism of the writers and producers. What is important is that we have the picture of a justice system that is incredibly perceptive and hands-on. The detectives, flawed or cynical as they might be, have a dogged determination and usually lay their hands on a suspect within a matter of days, if not hours. The prosecutors and defense attorneys are usually well-trained, highly-capable individuals, who fight out their battles in front of a jury, and win and lose their cases on the basis of savvy detective work and a keen grasp of the law.

You don't see the large number of cases that remain unsolved, the large number of cases that are quickly plea-bargained out, cops who are petty or mediocre, overworked and underpaid lawyers who offload a lot of their day-to-day duties onto paralegals. Have you ever seen a paralegal show up on Law and Order, or Criminal Minds or CSI: Whatever?

But yet, even at our most cynical, whatever our political background, we think that this is our ideal. This is how the system is supposed to work!

In the last couple of months, two of my trashier pleasures have been Conan the Barbarian (mostly the comics, though I also watched the first film) and Golgo 13 (the anime movies and TV episodes and a little bit of the manga). And on their surface, there are definitely a lot of similarities between the two works, at the generic level.

Conan the Barbarian is a muscle-bound, hard-fighting, hard-living quasi-Nordic warrior in a vaguely pre-medieval, post-Roman Eurasia, who wanders from town to town looking for wenches, wine, and chances to make money as either a thief or a soldier. The women he captures or rescues usually fall in love with him, for at least a little while.

Golgo 13 (a.k.a. Duke Togo) is a muscular Japanese assassin who travels around the world, shooting targets in incredibly impossible situations for money. When he's not killing people, he's usually bedding women in very manly ways.*

Both are clearly male empowerment fantasies, built around the idea that men express their manliness by killing/fighting and having sex with women. The most manly specimens are those that are paid for killing/fighting.

You don't have to look very far for other examples of this empowerment fantasy across genre and form of media. Almost all the Arnold Schwarzenegger protagonists, the Punisher, Wolverine, the Continental Op, most gangsta rappers, and so forth.**

I don't think it's necessary, at this point, to even discuss the fact that women are usually passive characters and victims, with their roles limited to mothers or whores.

But there is a deeper co-relation between Conan and Golgo 13 than that. Historically, culturally, and morally, they share a deeper kinship.

Conan was created by Robert E. Howard between 1929-1930, and his adventures first appeared in the 1930s. After Howard's suicide in 1936, his adventures were kept in print and republished by the executors of his estate, on and off, for the next three decades. However, it was not until the late sixties and early seventies that the character's success flowered with the publication of the Lancer/Ace paperbacks and the start of Marvel Comic's highly successful run of Conan comic books and black-and-white magazines.

Furthermore, post-Howard, a large part of Conan's image as a character was shaped by a series of collaborators, artists and editors with either a loose affiliation with Howard or no connection with him at all. A "studio system" aesthetic evolved, where writers like L. Sprague de Camp, Lin Carter, Bjorn Nyberg and Roy Thomas, and artists like Boris Vallejo, Barry Windsor-Smith, and John Buscema, added significant portions to the Conan mythos or rewrote other non-Conan stories by Howard to become Conan stories. Roy Thomas, in a quest to create content for Marvel's comics and magazines, even appropriated and licensed the non-Conan works of other fantasy writers!***

Though there was mercenary element at work here, the creators intended to serve Conan (or at least their vision of Conan). This was no egotistical attempt by upstart crows to beautify themselves with another's feathers, as might characterize August Derleth's appropriation of H.P. Lovecraft's work.

Golgo 13 was created by Takao Saito in the late 1960s and was first published in 1969. Though Takao Saito was Golgo's creator, the art and writing duties of the series are generally handled by a studio under his supervision. Though Saito's role in the day-to-day operations of the studio are certainly open to speculation, his name is the only one that appears in the credits for the manga.

Furthermore, the live action movies and the anime movies and TV series are under the control of others, though they draw on the comics for inspiration.

What's important to emphasize here is that the late 1960s and early 1970s was the first time either of these characters could command mass appeal. Leaving aside the gore and gruesomeness of their adventures (with extreme violence becoming more mainstream thanks to film and the TV news), both characters possessed a sexual rapaciousness that was only starting to become acceptable toward the end of the 1960s.

However, at the same time, both characters occupy a space of protest against the hippie/protest movements of the time. Their sexual appetites might seem part of the "Summer of Love", but their attitudes towards women are not progressive or feminist. Both characters are satisfied with a market economy and have no qualms with positioning themselves as commodities. Insofar as they display a political consciousness, it could be characterized as conservative, though they are rather apolitical. And though neither is racist or nationalist, their adventures and interactions usually express chauvinism towards cultures than their own.

I will deal more with these characterizations of Conan and Golgo in my next post.

I also wish to say, as a disclaimer, that I am not trying to characterize the political convictions of the writers/artists/editors working on these characters. Roy Thomas, at the very least, strikes me as a relatively progressive writer from his other comic book work. The tenor of these characters' adventures, however, definitely are on the conservative end of the spectrum, and the generic conventions work against progressive or leftist influences.

Anyway, next time: what Golgo says about Japan and what Conan says about America. Yup, I'm aiming big!

*(For a more detailed history of Golgo 13 than I would ever be capable of writing, visit Joe McCulloch's detailed write-up of Golgo here, here and here.)

** However, from my point of view, these characters are not law enforcement and they are not government agents. James Bond might be the one exception. But all of these characters, though they might have a moral system, are not constrained by law or (usually) a chain of command. John McClane, for example, is very different from John Matrix (from Commando). While both kill bad guys,  McClane is functioning as a protector of society. Matrix only cares about his daughter and enforcing his own sense of justice. McClane goes back to being a cop. Matrix rejects the idea of going back to be a soldier.

*** Norvell Page's Flame Winds, which was originally about Prester John in China, became a Conan adventure!