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CABIN (IN THE WOODS) FEVER

Here we are again, at long last. For those who came in late, as they say in The Phantom, I’m Peter Sanderson, and I’ve been writing about comics since I was a contributor to Silver Age DC Comics editor Julius Schwartz’s letter columns in the 1960s. After doing graduate studies at Columbia University, I planned to become a teacher, but got diverted into the comics business, where I researched and helped write the original DC Who’s Who and Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe. Since then I became Marvel’s first archivist, taught about comics at New York University, helped curate exhibits at the Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art in New York, worked on documentaries about comics, and write and co-wrote a lot of books about comics. There’s even a new one that is just coming out now. Years ago I reviewed the first edition of The Superhero Book, an encyclopedia of superheroes in comics, movies and television, edited by Gina Misiroglu. Years later, Gina invited me to help her revise and update the second edition, and I ended up writing lots of new entries and updating nearly all the rest. You can find the new edition on Amazon here: The Superhero Book.

In 2003 I started writing a weekly online column “Comics in Context” for my friend and editor Ken Plume, originally at IGN. I followed Ken to Kevin Smith’s Quick Stop Entertainment and then to Ken’s own A Site Called FRED and ended up writing two hundred and forty installments on comics, animation, movies based on comics, and anything else that I thought might relate to these subjects. Eventually, though, I suspended the column, due to various upheavals in my life, including my father’s final few years, the necessity of moving twice, and the Great Recession. I’m still dealing with the problems caused by the last, and, as you will see, looking for a job. But friends have persuaded me that I should start up the column again to increase my visibility and show people examples of my writing. So here I am, and writing the column again feels good. I already have a batch of subjects I want to write about, and I hope you stick around for the ride. And please spread the word!

WHAT THE OUTSIDE WORLD (STILL) THINKS

Those of you who read my first “Comics in Context” column a decade ago may recall that one of my motives for starting this column was anger. The current wave of movies based on comics, especially superhero comics, began in with the first X-Men movie, and I was appalled by the incomprehension and condescension with which some movie reviewers greeted them. Besides its alliterative catchiness, that was the reason I named the column “Comics in Context”: to criticize comics and related works in the media from an informed perspective, based on my years of studying the comics artform, the superhero genre, and other fields.

Lately, in need of paying work, I’ve joined two local support groups for job seekers. At the first meeting of the night group, each of us was asked to tell the group about his or her career. So I spoke about being a comics historian, writing books on the subject, teaching about comics at New York University, curating museum exhibitions on comics, writing reviews of graphic novels for Publishers Weekly, and so forth. The rest of the group was silent, and I got the impression that the founder of the group commented that comics had entertained him in the past. But I got the sense that no one really knew anything about my chosen field. After the meeting ended, my spirits were brightened a little when one of the other participants came up to me and said he had been a big Marvel fan when he was growing up. But he hasn’t come to any of the subsequent meetings.

At one of these later meetings, with only a small number of people present, we were all asked to do our “elevator pitch” about what we do and what kind of job we’re looking for. I again talked about being a writer about comics and graphic novels. Again most people said nothing, but one of them asked, “What’s a graphic novel? We know what comics are.” I explained, and talked about how over the last few decades comics and graphic novels had received serious attention in mainstream publications like The New York Times and in academia and in libraries (including the one where we were meeting). The man who didn’t know what a graphic novel was said, somewhat disbelievingly, that I was talking in “general” terms and wanted a specific example. So I talked about Art Spiegelman’s Maus, his graphic novel about the Holocaust, and how it had come out over a quarter century ago, had won the Pulitzer Prize, and was widely taught in schools. This came as news to everyone there. “How do you spell that?” the man asked about the title. (There was a copy in that same library!)

I was finding it hard to keep my temper, and apologized. It was dismaying. It seemed that nobody there had heard of the graphic novel revolution or really understood or appreciated what I did. I mentioned this on Facebook, and one of my Facebook friends asked, in effect, what did you expect?

I had naively expected more. For a dozen years there has been a wave of movies based on comic books and graphic novels, including blockbusters like Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies and Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy. But there have also been successful films based on indie comics, like American Splendor. Newspapers including The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, and USA Today regularly cover news in the comics industry, so frequently that it has ceased to be surprising. San Diego’s annual Comic Con has become an event covered by mass media throughout the country. The Sunday before this meeting The New York Times had run an article on the front page of its Sunday Arts & Leisure section about a museum retrospective of alternative cartoonist Daniel Clowes’ work; the Times subsequently ran an article about a retrospective of Robert Crumb’s career in Paris. Just last Sunday, as I write this, the Times did a long article about office politics at Archie Comics in its business section, and two pages of graphic novel reviews by Douglas Wolk in its Sunday Book Review. Only a few weekends before I attended “Comic New York,” a two-day academic symposium on comics at my alma mater Columbia University, marking the donation of longtime X-Men writer Chris Claremont’s archives (including my old fan letters to X-Men!) to the Columbia University library. There are graphic novel sections in public libraries now, as well as major bookstores. And how can anyone in America or various other countries avoid seeing the trailers and commercials and magazine covers for this summer’s movies, Joss Whedon’s The Avengers and Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises? When I was a student at Columbia, decades ago, that all of these things would happen seemed impossible and unimaginable. Indeed, even when I wrote my first “Comics in Context,” I would not have thought that comics would have this much impact on American culture only a decade hence.

And yet, in other ways, it seems as if nothing has changed at all, and as if I’m back at Columbia in my student days, trying unsuccessfully to persuade people (even some in the comics industry!) that, yes, comics is an artform and that superhero stories can be taken seriously. As astoundingly successful as various comics-based movies are commercially, and as enormous as the major comics conventions have grown, in other ways comics seem to be in a bad state. So many of my contemporaries have left the business. When comics were below the mainstream cultural radar, I got more paying work consistently than I do now.

Much of my dilemma is in trying to continue a career writing about comics history, and more importantly, doing comics criticism. Oh, yes, now there are academic conferences on comics, but my impression is that academics may get to include graphic novels in a course that is mainly about non-comics works, or may even be able to teach a course on comics, but that the latter are still rarities. Back when I was a graduate student, Columbia would never have let me do a dissertation on comics; I’d love to do one now, but have yet to find a way back into academia to do it.

I’ve proposed teaching courses on literary criticism of comics, or on the superhero genre, or on the bodies of work by major comics creators. But I’ve been told that people will not pay money to take such a course. There are plenty of courses about comics, but they’re mostly about how to write or draw comics. I keep seeking to write books about critically interpreting comics, but one editor has told me that no one wants to read books like this. Some academic presses may publish such books, but my former literary agents didn’t want me to deal with them. And, of course, it’s more likely to be alternative cartoonists who receive serious attention than comics writers and artists who work on genre material.

I am amazed by all of this. I earned three degrees in English literature at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, concentrating on the drama of Shakespeare’s time and the 20th century. None if my courses were about how to write plays or novels; if I wanted to do that, I would have gone to Columbia’s School of the Arts. No, these were courses in critically analyzing great works of literature, the sort of courses you will find in English departments at any college or university.

Similarly, I like to think that comics studies will pursue a route like film studies. In the early 1960s, I’m told, film courses at universities, when there were any, were only about how to make movies, more likely industrial training films that art films. This rapidly changed in the late 1960s. Now walk through the film section of a bookstore, and, yes, there will be some technical books about filmmaking, and certainly books on how to write screenplays. But the majority of the books will be studies of film genres, biographies of actors and directors, tomes on cinema history, guides to films on home video, and, of course, critical writings on the works of significant filmmakers.

Another important factor in the development of American film criticism is that it had to learn to take genre films seriously. It was the French critics who wrote for Cahiers du Cinema in the 1950s, many of whom became filmmakers in France’s “New Wave,” who pioneered the serious analysis of Hollywood studio films. “Auteurist” critics like Andrew Sarris (one of my teachers at Columbia) and Peter Bogdanovich carried on this work in the United States in the 1960s. And now it is generally accepted that Hollywood entertainments like John Ford’s Westerns and Alfred Hitchcock’s thrillers can be art.

I would like to think that comics studies will someday reach a similar point. But they haven’t yet. I’ve been working my whole life, from my letters to Silver Age letter columns—my first attempts at comics criticism—to the present, preparing for a kind of career that doesn’t seem to exist yet.

Well, I can’t wait. I am returning to doing “Comics in Context,” whenever I can find time, because those of us who can do this sort of writing about comics should, to lay the foundation for the golden age of comics studies that I hope will someday come. I’ve done 240 “Comics in Context” columns in the past, all of which you can find on the Internet by Googling. I wish they had a wider audience, but someday perhaps they will. The age of social networking is much more advanced now than when I left off doing “Comics in Context”; maybe some of my new columns will go viral.

THE CABINET OF DR. WHEDON

As longtime “Comics in Context” readers know, I use my blog to cover not just comics but all forms of cartoon art, including animation, and also live action movies based on cartoon art. So you can expect over the coming weeks to see me do critiques of Joss Whedon’s The Avengers, Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Returns, the reboot of the Spider-Man movies in The Amazing Spider-Man and Pixar’s first heroine-centric film Brave. I’ll also cover museum exhibitions of cartoon art, and stage versions of comics properties: I expect to write down my memories of seeing the infamous Spider-Man musical sooner or later. Sometimes I will delve into subjects that don’t belong in a column on comics, strictly speaking, if I can find some excuse. I’ve dealt with the classic television series Dark Shadows in the past, with the excuse that it has served as source material for comic books and comic strips over the decades, and plan to review Tim Burton’s controversial forthcoming film version. And I will sometimes critique non-comics works by writers who are also known for their work in comics or animation. So Joss Whedon, creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and overseer and sometime writer of Dark Horse’s Buffy comics, has been a recurring past topic in “Comics in Context,” notably in my critique of the start of his run writing Marvel’s Astonishing X-Men comic.

And that brings me to this week’s topic. As a prelude to writing about Whedon’s Avengers movie, I want to examine his other film that recently came out: the metafictional horror film The Cabin in the Woods, directed by Whedon’s longtime collaborator Drew Goddard, produced by Whedon, and co-written by both of them.

Publicity for the movie and many reviewers have cautioned that they dare not reveal any of the plot, apart from the basic premise of teenagers going to stay in a cabin in the woods where Bad Things happen, lest they give away the many plot twists and surprises. As a result I ended up somewhat disappointed, since there were fewer twists and surprises than this secrecy had led me to expect. There is one big casting surprise towards the end though, that I never saw coming and really liked.

But longtime “Comics in Context” readers know that I can’t do a thorough analysis of a story unless I deal with the whole plot. So consider this your spoiler warning, and let us proceed.

The first big revelation, which some reviewers have given away, is that the five hapless teenagers are being watched and manipulated by some mysterious high-tech organization, whose principal figures are played by actors Bradley Whitford and Richard Jenkins. There are echoes here of past Whedon projects, such as the Initiative in Buffy, the secret government operation—located beneath a university full of teens instead of a cabin hideaway for only five teens—that held monsters captive, who eventually escape and wreak bloody havoc. Then there’s the Dollhouse, in the TV series of the same name, a secret corporate organization that manipulates young people as if they were slaves. The high-tech organization in Cabin even includes actress Amy Acker in a lab coat, visually echoing her roles in Whedon’s Angel and Dollhouse.

Who is running this high-tech organization that seems to be experimenting on these victimized teens without their knowledge? If that question was answered in the film, I missed it. Was it the Big Bad Government or the Big Bad Corporation, both of which seem like cliches, albeit effective ones. As a Boomer who recalls the 1960s, I used to think of the Big Bad Government Agency as a bogeyman for the anti-establishment left wing. Chris Carter’s The X-Files did a great deal with the Big Bad Government Conspiracy, headed by the Cigarette-Smoking Man; heroes Mulder and Scully and their boss and ally Skinner seemed to be among the very few truly trustworthy people in the federal government in this series. The limitations of government intelligence and power became clearer in the post-9/11 period. I think it is now harder to imagine an X-Files-style all-powerful government conspiracy that succeeds in remaining secret from the public. The government isn’t that omnicompetent, and the bigger the supposed conspiracy, the more likely people are to talk. In watching 24 I began to think that the Big Bad Government might really nowadays be a bogeyman for the right wing, and maybe, in retrospect, The X-Files had played on such fears from the right. So nowadays we have a left wing that wants to expand the services of government, like through universal health care, and a right wing that insists on shrinking government and that government cannot operate as well as an less regulated free market. In the first X-Files movie we were told that FEMA was the means by which the Big Bad Government would take control of the country; this was before FEMA so famously blundered during Hurricane Katrina. Now in real life there are Republicans who claim that Obamacare is an attack on freedom.

Since it’s hard for me to imagine a corporation tormenting Cabin’s teen protagonists without any obvious financial benefit, then I presume that it’s the government running the Cabin experiment; indeed, we are shown that other countries, notably Japan, have their own versions. So I find the Big Bad Secret Government Project something of a cliché, although arguably Whedon and Goddard are counting on its very familiarity. Cabin is a movie that deals with archetypes and tropes of horror fiction, so why not include tropes from other forms of genre fiction as well, like the scientists who manipulate and victimize unwilling subjects as if they were lab rats?

What Whedon and Goddard have created in Cabin is a work of metafiction, in other words, a work of fiction about the creation of fiction. The five teen protagonists, isolated in a creepy house in the wilderness, beset by threats to their lives, are archetypal figures in an archetypal situation common to a large subgenre of contemporary horror films. Whedon and Goddard appear to be very much aware that they are bringing a different perspective to what have become contemporary horror film archetypes.

Hence, Whedon said in a recent interview for Salon: “‘Cabin in the Woods is, for me, a way of making the kind of movie that I love and at the same time making another kind of movie that I love. It’s a way of taking the cabin and — not blowing it up, but kind of exploding it. Not just enjoying it, but turning it over in your hand over and over and looking at it. I know that’s not a great sell, but that’s really what it is to me. If you take the premise, and then you take the idea that the premise is a premise — without losing the audience, without winking at them — how much can you do? How far can you take it?”

So the movie treats the “premise” as “a premise”: the scientists are creating a narrative, using their teen victims as their cast. The scientists put them into this horror movie scenario, watch how they react, and subject them to terrors that cause the teens to suffer and die. And it is indicated that the scientists do this over and over to different sets of young victims, thus staging this narrative, this drama, on a recurring basis.

The scientists, therefore, can be interpreted as stand-ins for the creators of horror films, who devise these fantasies in which young victims are subjected to suffering and death for the entertainment of the horror film audience. Take the analogy further, and the Whitford and Jenkins characters become stand-ins for Whedon and Goddard themselves, at least in part. In the Salon interview Whedon admits this: “Besides being lovely guys and great actors, Bradley and Richard represent a completely different kind of identification. We are them — and not just me and Drew, although specifically me and Drew — but they are the people who have chosen for what happens to happen.”

Moreover, the Whitford and Jenkins characters are not only the creators of the horrific story, but also its audience. They and the other members of their team watch what happens to the teens on large viewing screens, as if they were watching a horror movie in a theater or on television. One of the things that most struck me about the Whitford and Jenkins characters was how jaded and even bored they often look, watching these screens. They have apparently watched these horror scenarios they devise so many times that they are inured to the horror, and even the sexuality that they observe. Whitford’s character, for example, waits, seemingly bored, for one of the girls to perform that standard trope of such films, going topless, is disappointed when she doesn’t, and seems mildly relieved when she finally does but more as if he’s checking off a list than being actually aroused by the sight.

Portraying Whitford and Jenkins’ characters as audience implicates the film’s actual audience in their willingness to torment innocents for its supposed entertainment value. Whedon points this out to Salon as well: “And you, as the viewer, are the person who chooses that, if you have gone to see this movie. The act of walking into the movie makes you the one to see these people suffer. It does not happen if you do not watch.” The interviewer then compares the situation to Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle. Agreeing, Whedon notes that “If you don’t go to the movie, maybe those kids have a really nice weekend.”

The real target of Cabin, it seems to me, is lack of empathy towards other people. Specifically, it is the lack of empathy by those in power towards those who are out of power, by establishment insiders towards outsiders, by the old towards the young. The scientists have no sympathy for their teenage victims, and no sense of identification with them; they make the kids suffer for the minimal entertainment it provides to their jaded psyches. They even take bets on the outcome. As far as they are concerned, the five teens are the Other, who exist merely to be destroyed in a demonstration of their power to manipulate events.

This too is an archetypal situation: human history is full of examples of one group in power tormenting a powerless group who serve as unwilling scapegoats. Take, for example, the Romans in the Colosseum taking enjoyment in seeing Christians thrown to the lions. Moreover, it strikes me that this theme of lack of empathy is particularly appropriate to the present day, with politicians campaigning to shred the social safety net, reduce the availability of medical care to the less prosperous, cut Social Security and Medicare for the elderly. Remember in one of the Republican presidential candidates’ debates when people cheered at the idea of letting someone without medical insurance die?

In Cabin Whedon and Goddard are questioning the motivations of horror film makers, and their audience, including themselves in both categories. Why do you take pleasure in seeing these young people suffer? Why do you enjoy seeing people killed off one by one?

Perhaps Whedon and Goddard point to a possible answer through the third act’s big twist. It turns out that the scientists are not just staging these horrific scenarios for their own perverse pleasure. Each of the five teens is revealed to be a representative of an archetypal figure: the Athlete, the Whore, Student, the Virgin, ad the Fool. Metafictionally speaking, these are character types in this horror subgenre. Moreover, the scientists’ repeated scenario of having menaces of different sorts attack and kill an isolated group of teenagers is revealed to be a ritual, that has presumably been enacted for millennia. Here Whedon and Goddard are indicating that they are not just dealing with the conventions of a certain type of horror film; they are showing that these conventions are actually modern versions of a mythic pattern involving similarly mythic archetypes. Thus this “cabin-in-the-woods” horror subgenre is a contemporary version of a mythic ritual of human sacrifice, in which the innocent young perish at the hands of dark forces.

According to Cabin, this ritual is conducted over and over in order to appease ancient H. P. Lovecraftian gods so they will refrain from destroying all of humanity. Does this have any figurative meaning with regard to Whedon and Goddard’s metafictional exploration of horror films? In this case I couldn’t find any clues in Whedon’s recent interviews. Perhaps, though, Whedon and Goddard are suggesting that horror films are the filmmakers’ and audience’s way of dealing with greater terrors than those the films evoke, such as the inevitability of mortality. We cope with our awareness and fears of death by watching inflicted on other people who are Not Us, while we remain safe, like Whitford and Jenkins’ characters watching on their screens.

At the end of Cabin, the two surviving protagonists decide to allow the Lovecraftian gods to exterminate humanity rather than keep playing the scientists’ game. Can the deaths of billions, the genocide of the human race, really be the preferable solution? The end of the film seems not a victory or restoration of order, but an expression of exhaustion: let the world die, give in to darkness.

As such, Cabin seems to me to be the most extreme step yet in the continuing darkening of Whedon’s work, ever since the latter seasons of Buffy. Whedon first won his devoted audience through the early seasons of Buffy, which succeeded in combining intense, operatic drama and genuine darkness with a compensating humor and optimism; Buffy was a tormented teen, doomed to be unhappy in love, and yet she was embarked on a heroine’s journey of empowerment, providing a source of hope. The Whedonverse has steadily grown darker and even more despairing at times. I followed Dollhouse but never truly found it appealing; Whedon’s trademark wit was absent or misfired, and the plight of the heroine, unaware of her true identity, manipulated as a slave and prostitute by her masters, seemed dismayingly unpleasant to watch, far removed from the heroism of past Whedon characters. In Cabin even though two protagonists defy the ritual and survive, hope and heroism are absent. (Anyway, the those two protagonists will only survive until the Lovecraftian monsters get around to killing them. too.)

I wonder if Whedon and Goddard’s revisionist take on horror films even loses its way in Cabin’s third act. The movie ends with chaos, with monsters loosed from their cages, slaughtering everyone , including all but two of the principals. Blood is literally everywhere. If the filmmakers are questioning why the audience should enjoy watching people suffer and die, then why fill the end of the film with so much suffering and death? Whedon told Salon that he intends for the viewers to care about not only the teen protagonists but also even Whitford and Jenkins’ characters. But recall that he also noted that “Cabin in the Woods is, for me, a way of making the kind of movie that I love.” Maybe the love gets in the way of the critique at the end, since it ends in a universal bloodbath, and the film seems impassive towards the deaths of all the scientists. Just more bloody slaughter to entertain jaded moviegoers.

Telling The New York Times about his next project, a web series called Wastelanders,-created with Warren Ellis, Whedon said “”It’s very dark and very grown-up,” he said. “But it’s the next thing that I want to say, so I can’t worry about ‘Well, where’s the empowerment narrative that people love?’ “. So the journey into darkness continues. But will this affect the Avengers film, which I would like to think will ultimately be a celebration of the superhero genre?

Interestingly, Whedon told Salon about Cabin and Avengers, “There’s going to be the people trying to manipulate a situation and controlling it from above, and the people who are actually in the trenches. In that sense, Cabin in the Woods and The Avengers are oddly similar.” Later, he added, “I’m incredibly excited and proud of both of these movies and they have many similarities, but they really couldn’t be more different in so many ways It’s nice to be able to do that.” Well, after I get to see The Avengers movie, you may expect to see me compare and contrast it with Cabin here in “Comics in Context.”

Thinking about Cabin’s critique of horror filmmakers;’ motives, I wonder if the same approach can be applied to superhero comics. Take the common contemporary trope of continually killing off long-running, beloved characters, sometimes horrifically (consider Supergirl’s demise in Crisis on Infinite Earths, for an early example). Usually the character is eventually resurrected, although readers may have to wait decades for this, as with the Silver Age Flash. Death and resurrection, real or symbolic, are part of the mythic hero’s journey, but how triumphant are many of these resurrections in contemporary comics? Indeed, more and more, these killings and resurrections seem to be devised as cynical ploys to appeal to the jaded palates of fans who have seen too many supposedly shocking scenarios in latter-day comics. Surely no one at Marvel really intended the recent demise of Captain America, whose body was then show decaying on panel, to be permanent, and yet readers fell for it, and even after Cap’s return, readers fell for the seeming demise of the Human Torch in yet another cynical scenario that inevitably resulted in his return. Sometimes I have found myself wondering about the mindset that devises these storylines. When did the superhero soap operatics that Stan Lee pioneered turn into this cold manipulation of heroic icons, dragging them through death and degradation for the entertainment of a generation of readers of “grim and gritty” comics? Are these iconic superheroes inspiring figures, or merely puppets manipulated into increasingly dark and despairing narratives by an industry desperate to keep sales from falling any further?

“Comics in Context” #241
Copyright 2012 Peter Sanderson

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Comments:

4 Responses to “Comics in Context: Cabin (in the Woods) Fever”

  1. Alessandro Says:

    Great to see the return of Comics in Context!

    One question … Do you plan on ever continuing your examination of the “Wimpy” character? I was looking forward to a resolution someday ;)

  2. Brad Says:

    Great to have you back! Great food for thought on Cabin.

  3. Paul Says:

    First time reader; good to hear your opinions. I second the feedback on people’s not knowing graphic novels et al: what did you expect. I liked your spoiler review of CABIN which I just saw. I have veered away from Whedon’s TV fare before this. I look forward to your next column!

  4. Burnel Says:

    I have been a reader of your column for quite some time, and I am excited that you have returned. Your brilliant insights and unique voice have always entertained me while making me think critically.

    Like in this recent article you say, “This too is an archetypal situation: human history is full of examples of one group in power tormenting a powerless group who serve as unwilling scapegoats. Take, for example, the Romans in the Colosseum taking enjoyment in seeing Christians thrown to the lions.” That comment made me think of the recent phenomenon, The Hunger Games, where 24 children are placed in an arena to kill one another for the entertainment of TV viewers. Of course The Hunger Games is less Subtle than Cabin in the Woods, but it is striking that two different stories in two different genres can have a similar theme to them. Outstanding.

    Please continue on with this column, even if you find permanent work someplace. When you went on hiatus, I felt an sadness whenever I would come to see if you had posted a new article but did not. You are a brilliant writer and should continue with this no matter what.

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