Previously in The Last War in Albion: The one-off issue of Doom Patrol entitled “The Beard Hunter” satirized Marvel Comics’ popular character The Punisher.
“The country’s disintegrating. What’s happened to America? What’s happened to the American Dream?”
“It came true. You’re looking at it.” – Alan Moore, Watchmen
Satisfyingly. Morrison’s take on the character focuses intently on the toxic masculinity of the concept. This is implicit in the basic hook—the Beard Hunter, real name Ernest Franklin, does what it says on the tin, hunting men with beards down, killing them, and shaving off the beard as a trophy. This targeting of an overt symbol of masculinity is part of a larger pattern of intense sexual anxiety—at one point the Beard Hunter is hit on by a pair of women and is angry and uncomfortable, talking about how “I shouldn’t have worn those tight jeans and the ripped shirt,” and only not killing them because of their lack of beard. Subsequently it becomes clear that he’s nondescriptly mentally ill and off his medication, living with his mother (who has nothing but contempt for him), and, it’s suggested, is a self-closeted gay man. (His mother describes how he keeps ordering magazines with titles like Physique and Trunks, to which he sadly stammers, “That’s not fuh-fair! It’s… it’s huh-health and buh-body building! You’re just trying to make it sound dirty,” and subsequently retires to his room to sulk about how “I know a hundred ways to kill a man using a box of matches and a TV remote control. Who needs girls? All they ever want to do is go to the movies and play hard to get. The guys down at the gym talk about it all the time.”)
It is impossible not to notice the degree to which this is exploring the same terrain as Rorschach, an impression that is not lessened by a sight gag when Ernest visits the Bearded Gentlemen’s Club of Metropolis in which a portrait of “Our Founder” hangs that is very obviously none other than Alan Moore. Equally, there is no reason this has to be deliberate. It would, frankly, be quite a surprise if a 1991 Grant Morrison did a comic full of beard jokes that didn’t have an Alan Moore joke in it. And parodying the Punisher without ending up in the same basic territory as Rorschach would be a challenge. Rorschach, after all, is an acerbic commentary on the pathology of loner vigilante heroes, while the Punisher is more or less the most stereotypical rendition of that trope imaginable. Rorschach is such a thorough and comprehensive riff on the trope that any subsequent effort is either going to end up adjacent to it or end up being facile and toothless. And Morrison was never going to be facile and toothless.
Equally, the Beard Hunter is not the same sort of thing as Rorschach. Rorschach was a key component in a larger deconstruction and commentary upon the superhero genre. He existed to take certain lines of thought to a logical endpoint so as to observe and document the precise ways in which they broke down. The Beard Hunter, on the other hand, is a work of comedy, exaggerating those same tendencies to the point of ridiculousness so that everyone can laugh at them. In this regard it is a parody of Rorschach as much as it is of the Punisher—an impish mockery of the pleasure so many took in the character.
In light of all of this, it is worth reflecting on the specific plot of “The Beard Hunter,” which sees Ernest recruited by the aforementioned Bearded Gentlemen’s Club of Metropolis to take vengeance on Niles Caulder, who once snubbed the organization. (“I wrote a poem cleverly satirizing Caulder and it was published in our monthly newsletter,” the head of the group rants, fist angrily held up high, “but honor has still not been properly satisfied.”) This leads to a confrontation in the supermarket in which Caulder lures the Beard Hunter into a trap made of aluminum foil wired to a chest freezer that fatally electrocutes the oil drenched Beard Hunter. This is a return of the Chief—thus far largely unexplored within Morrison’s run—to something largely recognizable as a derivative of his original 1960s form—a genius in the sense of someone who cleverly employs basic science that could be used to argue for the educational value of comics if another Wertham-esque moral panic emerged. Electrocuting someone to death in a supermarket does not, strictly speaking, count as that, and it’s notable that his scheme is depicted entirely through the art, with no explanation given through dialogue, assuming a reader who understands enough to put together his scheme as opposed to one who can be enlightened by the explanation. Nevertheless, it’s a clear return to an older style of superhero stories, pitted head to head with a sly and witty parody of the newer style. This was, unsurprisingly, a common theme for Morrison—their other two pastiche issues of Doom Patrol work much the same way, with the Doom Force special serving as a critique of its subject matter while the Jack Kirby pastiche takes a much more firmly nostalgic look at its subject matter. But “The Beard Hunter,” with its delightfully bizarre premise and deft satire, is the clear gem of the bunch.
“The Beard Hunter” led into a three part arc focused on sex that was in many ways the nadir of Morrison’s middle period, a three-issue arc about sex that combined the “why are these things going together in a single story” problems of the Willougby Kipling and Pupa arcs with an uncomfortable prurience that wouldn’t have been out of place in the more lackluster parts of Crisis, capped off with the reveal of Crazy Jane’s hypersexual Scarlet Harlot persona. It’s a mess of an arc, but also marks the endpoint of this style as Morrison begins to transition towards their endgame.
The first clear sign that Morrison was approaching their endgame came with the return of Mr. Nobody and a second version of the Brotherhood of Dada including Agent “!”, who definitionally “comes as no surprise” and thus can hide in plain sight, Alias the Blur, whose fragmentary mirror face can age people to death, the Love Glove, who telekinetically pilots a disembodied glove, and the mysterious Number None, of whom it is said that “everybody and everything, at some time or another, is Number None,” who is “the enemy: the person who bumps into you when you’re late for the train; the chair that collapses underneath you when you’re trying to make a good impression on your girlfriend’s parents; that man who seems thin but somehow you can’t get past him because he takes up the whole sidewalk.” (A final member, the Toy, is announced, but never actually seems to show up, to Mr. Nobody’s increasing consternation.)
This time Mr. Nobody’s plan is less attached to early century avant garde aesthetics than to mid-century psychedelia, with its centerpiece being his acquisition of a powerful magical artifact: Albert Hoffman’s bicycle. Hoffman was the discoverer of lysergic acid diethylamide, first synthesizing it in 1938, and returning to it in 1943, when, on April 16th, he accidentally absorbed some through his fingertips, describing how he was “ affected by a remarkable restlessness, combined with a slight dizziness. At home I lay down and sank into a not unpleasant intoxicated-like condition, characterized by an extremely stimulated imagination. In a dreamlike state, with eyes closed (I found the daylight to be unpleasantly glaring), I perceived an uninterrupted stream of fantastic pictures, extraordinary shapes with intense, kaleidoscopic play of colors.” Three days later, on April 19th, he experimented with the compound again, this time deliberately, taking the incredibly small test dose of 250 micrograms. As it happens, LSD’s potency lies far below that, and Hoffman had in fact taken a moderately intense dose of acid, a fact he was wholly unaware of when he began what proved an unusually intense bike ride home. Mr. Nobody’s plan is to embed the bicycle in question within a school bus and driving it around the country to spread psychedelia, love, and weirdness. And more to the point, his plan is to run for President.
This was a deliberately timely decision—the arc came just as the calendar tipped over into 1992—the year of the US Presidential election, and squarely in the beginning of primary season to see who would be running against George H.W. Bush. Like all elections, this was at once epochal and irrelevant, especially when viewed from a context defined largely by magical wars for the soul of the counterculture. From the perspective of either Moore or Morrison the feuding between the Democratic and Republican parties seems as much a narcissism of small differences as the battle between two British occultist comic book writers. Which middle aged white man will preside over American economic imperialism for the next four years? Who gives a fuck. An election might provide a certain cultural backdrop, but in the end its purpose is less about the options given than it is about the options carefully and meticulously excluded.
By these standards, then, the 1992 election was blander than most. In the incumbent position was George H.W. Bush, who had just completed what was essentially Ronald Reagan’s third term and was widely seen as unbeatable following his successful capture of the Iraqi oil supply in 1991. His major challenger was Bill Clinton, whose political brand consisted of merging a sense of youthful enthusiasm (he was the first President from the Baby Boom generation) with a pragmatic centrism that actively stood against his party’s more progressive wing. Enlivening things very marginally was Ross Perot, America’s first attempt at running a weirdo tech bro for President, who ran as a protectionist populist. None of this was inspiring.
In any case, the usual sort of drama played out. Perot exited the race in July, reentering a few months later a spent force, and came in a distant third, albeit with the best showing of a third party candidate since Theodore Roosevelt. Clinton, meanwhile, ran a campaign focused on the economy and pulled off the upset, serving a full two terms to round out the millennium. This too was largely uninspiring.
If one is to treat elections as largely irrelevant in any material politcal sense, however, their symbolic dimensions come into clearer focus. In this light, what is significant about the 1992 election is that it continue the process that began two years earlier in the UK with the deposing of Margaret Thatcher, and would culminate, slightly belatedly, in the 1997 election of Tony Blair, a cynical moderate in the same basic mould as Clinton. This new era of tedious centrism is significant not for its own merits or content, but simply for the way in which it marked the end of the Reagan-Thatcher hegemony. This era, seemingly intractable at the time, was defined by the way in which those politicians loomed large, as existential, nightmarish threats. These were politics one could furiously define one’s self against, and gave the art of that period a dark and frenzied urgency. This feverish intensity was the background from which Moore and Morrison both emerged, a defining aspect of their ascent.
And now it was over, and a new era was here. The tone of the culture shifted. In many ways Morrison was well-suited to this shift, Their adamant rejection of the conflation of realism and darkness within superhero comics was always in part a reaction against the mood of the 1980s. The 1990s, meanwhile, tended towards a millenialist optimism, with the youthful vigor of politicians like Clinton and Blair its avatars. That their policies were largely the same as Thatcher and Reagan’s with a soupçon of compassion and a thin veneer of progressivism was irrelevant, at least in this regard. The mood was cheerier, and Morrison would prove well poised to take advantage of that just as Moore had been well suited to the moody fug of the previous decade.
While this climate would suit Morrison in the general case, it was decidedly not where they went with the Brotherhood of Dada arc, which instead ended with an uncharacteristic darkness. Mr. Nobody’s run for President is tremendously effective, with the public glomming onto his politics of liberation from sense and seriousness. In response to this, however, the US Government did what the US Government does to leftist insurgents, which is to say, brutally murders them, unleashing their crazed and dangerous agent John Dandy, who has Scrabble tiles for eyes and wields a set of six faces as a weapon. He makes short and brutal work of the Brotherhood of Dada (although Number None presumably survives), and Mr. Nobody dies in front of Cliff and Josh sadly bemoaning how “they don’t want strangeness and unpredictability in their lives. They tire of it so soon, though they never tire of tedium.”
It’s a sad and brutal ending—a story in which all the fun bleeds painfully out, leaving only a sense of bitter disappointment, so that its final gag—the Toy showing up and explaining that she’s a supervillain and got held up—lands as a sad absurdism. What is perhaps most striking is the shocking speed at which it all happens. That Mr. Nobody would be defeated is obvious—he’s the villain, after all, even if he’s a fundamentally sympathetic villain within Morrison’s larger aesthetic system. But the readers’ assumption would be that the Doom Patrol would be involved in their defeat. Instead the Doom Patrol stands by stunned and horrified as John Dandy tears the bad guys apart. From the moment John Dandy is released to when everyone dead is just twelve pages of sheer and murderous violence. There’s no heroic last stand. There’s not even any sense of hope. There’s just the ugly tragedy of the weirdos getting put down by the feds. [continued]