Sunday, August 4, 2013

O, Bitter Victories

There are plenty of not-so-victorious victories to go around in the Marvel universe--heck, just look at that fight between Spider-Man and Electro posted earlier, where walking away a winner still made Spider-Man feel like a loser. But, since those battles don't sell comics without some sort of fanfare that lets the reader know their hero didn't exactly notch one in the "win" column, Marvel from time to time tacks on a dramatic title that also makes for a great cover caption, to indicate that the hero isn't really going to feel like a victor after the events of the story unfold. And so it snagged a line from Daphnis and Chloe, a story written by the Greek novelist Longus over 2,000 years ago:

"My pulse beats high: my heart leaps: my soul melts: and yet I wish to kiss again. O bitter victory! O strange disease, the name of which I cannot even tell! Can Chloe have tasted poison before she kissed me? why then did she not die?"

The verse describes Daphnis, a goatherd, first being exposed to love when he kisses another shepherd, Chloe--obviously wanting to take things further but confused by his feelings. More confusing still is the fact that Stan Lee had the sole work of a 2000-year-old Greek novelist lying around his office and took the time to thumb through it for inspiration. The result was a title that plays well in the pages of comics:

And sometimes overplayed. You can't just drop this kind of title into a story when you need a little drama--you'd have readers rolling their eyes and crying, "O, Not Again!" So while you may see a good deal of covers with such a caption, there are only a few story titles which make use of the wording. Let's have a look at them and see if they're tragically bitter enough to get a thumbs-up from Longus.

The first story I'm aware of is from Amazing Spider-Man #60, where the Kingpin has a doctor sap the will of Captain Stacy (Gwen Stacy's police captain father) and put him under his control. As we saw above, Peter Parker, as Spider-Man, saw what was going on when he crashed in on the Kingpin, and his suspicions are confirmed when he visits Stacy at his home. Stacy, realizing that Peter is a danger to his cover as the Kingpin's operative, moves to deal with Peter; unfortunately, when Peter seeks to defend himself, his girlfriend Gwen misinterprets matters:

Peter, obviously, can't go into detail with Gwen since he has no hard evidence. But even after Gwen has tearfully given him his walking papers, he still has a job to do--and, later, he's able to photograph Stacy rifling through some police files for the Kingpin. Caught between a rock and hard place, he does the only thing he can do:

And, naturally, the one person he doesn't want to find out he was the one responsible for nailing Stacy happens to be a "Daily Bugle" subscriber:

(Gosh, Gwen--you're surprised to see it's a special edition, yet you're expecting to find it at the door?)

Peter, unlike Daphnis, isn't confused by his feelings for Gwen; in fact, in this issue, he realizes for the first time that he's in love with her. Unfortunately, he torpedoes that pretty quickly.

Next we've got the Silver Surfer, who's mixed up in... oh, heck, who knows. Some generic third-world conflict where a dictator is lording it over the people, and the Surfer ends up on the side of the freedom fighters. As you can see by the splash page, the forces of the dictator are on their way to being routed by the Surfer--but then, a spacecraft arrives carrying the Surfer's love, Shalla Bal, who has enlisted the aid of a Zenn-la scientist to pilot her to Earth so that she can reunite with the Surfer. But before the Surfer realizes Shalla Bal is now within arm's reach, tragedy strikes:

And so, brought together with Shalla Bal at long last, the Surfer realizes that he must now send her back or lose her forever:

The Surfer's aid has enabled the freedom fighters to reclaim their homeland and send the dictator and his forces into exile; but as a result, the Surfer must send away the one person he's longed to return to. So I'd say those are pretty bitter circumstances. The Surfer would really be feeling bitter, though, if that ship blasted off and he then remembered that he's perfectly capable of healing mortal gunshot wounds to the back in the blink of an eye:

O, bitter memory lapse!

Finally, we have the mighty Thor, in battle with his half-brother, Loki, who has tapped into the power of the dread Dormammu and used it to make Asgard's warriors think that Earth mortals are their, er, mortal enemies. So Thor sneaks into Loki's encampment with some army guys in order to get the drop on him. And it looks like Thor is already feeling pretty bitter:

But it's instead Thor who is surprised by Loki, and the two battle in earnest. Fortunately, it looks like Loki is losing Dormammu's power, which gives the edge to Thor:

But why would Thor's victory be a cause for bitterness? The Asgardians seem to have no problem whooping it up. Yet Thor, despite Loki's clearly evil mindset, feels conflicted about bringing his brother down:

It's funny how the movie Thor has adopted these feelings of regret in his dealings with Loki--when, in the comic, Thor has usually put any such family ties on the back burner to deal with the deadly threat Loki usually represents. In other words, he generally hasn't experienced a lot of bitter victories when it comes to putting the smack-down on Loki.

Poor Longus's now-famous exclamation seems to have been stowed away in the Marvel attic, with the stakes much higher in today's stories and with few heroes feeling particularly concerned with bitterness or misgivings when it comes to the circumstances of their victories. Battles are now fought by the numbers, with actual bitterness substituting for feelings of regret. Perhaps it's fair to say that it could well be readers who are shedding a tear at that.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Well, these may be bitter victories, but at least, lo, there was an ending. Or something like that. Man, I need an aspirin.

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