Truth be told, I have about three drafts sitting on my computer hard drive that constitute my attempts at writing this essay. I have never read anything like JLA: Welcome to the Working Week before, ever. Comic books, if ever constant around some variable, place emphasis on incredible actions; superheroes perform deeds that are in excess of being human. Strange, then, that Patton Oswalt’s one shot JLA issue would discuss superheroes in contexts that emphasize their strength to retain their humanity in the face of overwhelming inhumanity. The tale is self referential, told in stream of consciousness style a la James Joyce’s Ulysses, and is bursting at the seams with Easter eggs and Oswalt’s own idiosyncratic writing style, particular to his stand-up and non-comedic fiction writing. Patton Oswalt is already a brilliant, albeit crass, comedian, and writing comics supplements yet another creative, exploratory notch to his expanding belt (no pun intended).
The content that emerges from the issue is derivative from the Justice League, specifically the core members. Hal Jordan, Flash (Wally West), Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, Plastic Man, and the Martian Manhunter comprise the senior figures featured throughout the comic. Their interpersonal relationships are the focus of the comic, which emphasize particular acts of absurdity (assuming that the JLA are stand ins for a pantheon of major and minor deities). Batman and Flash namedrop obscure indie rock hits, in relation to crime forensics (Shuggie Otis, Cole Porter, etc), Green Lantern and Flash watch made for TV movies and root for Luiz Guzman’s portrayal of commissioner Gordon (Guz-mon!), and Plastic Man throws a kegger in the Watchtower, which Superman and Batman amicably don’t attend for the mutual reason that “It’s not my scene.” These vignettes, however, are filtered through the perspective of Marlus, which adds a subtle difference in how the events are perceived. The reader is well aware, for instance, that Batman is Bruce Wayne. Marlus’s conjectures on both the origin of Batman and the conversation he observes between Batman and Weather Wizard when snooping around, formulate perceptions privy to him alone. What he sees augments our understanding as readers, thereby allowing for an entirely new approach to the character become possible. Welcome to the Working Week feeds the reader information in the same way that a newspaper or journal does which establishes an intertextual frame narrative.
Oswalt’s comic, then, is a writer’s comic book. As collaborative efforts, comic books are the synergistic products of a group of minds, and while comics originated from the esoteric art comics of the 50s and 60s (particularly French comics), a sympathetic dualism has emerged in our contemporary times to honor the talents of the writer and illustrator respectively. As if these two individuals were the sole responsible agents for the creation of comics, one shots and limited runs are billed as writer or illustrator team ups. Oswalt’s comic is no different, and wastes no time on being self referential about it. Marlus’s career as a freelance journalist, his departure from mainstream reporting to his own niche hobby markets of superhero tabloids, establishes his fetish for the JLA, and, by extension, Oswalt’s career in stand-up and the avante garde. The fantastic premise of a metahuman journalist reflects Oswalt’s signature style, especially the implied voyeurism in his observations of Hawkman and Wonder Woman respectively. Like a paparazzi photographer, Marlus snoops around getting the scoop on the World’s Finest, their idiosyncrasies, their hobbies. Superman humors jokes at his own expense, but provides counsel to dangerous super villains that just want someone to confide in. Plastic Man is a sexual deviant obscuring an inner, deeper complexity with extravagant self-expression. This all pales in comparison to Wonder Woman, who abducts Arkham inmates and extorts from them hand-to-hand combat techniques in exchange for commuted prison sentences. Each is a larger than life, career-starting story for a journalist.
In one scene, Marlus sneaks into the JLA uniform exhibit (though it’s hard to determine the actual use for the room). The scene is brief, and one can pass it by expediently with ease. Despite this, as Marlus looks into the tanks displaying the special costumes and armor of the various JLA members, he makes a striking observation about the nature of heroism. By now Marlus is exhausted, emotionally and physically, by the activities that he has witnessed in his hiding. He says,
“How do they do this everyday? Just watching them makes me exhausted… Forget the fighting supervillains and saving the world. What kind of life is this, plumed and powered beyond anything resembling life? How do you keep your grip on reality? What’s the point? Do any of us appreciate it? We admire it, but that’s not the same as appreciation. Only when you die… when you…”
This is a problem unique to DC. Marvel has gods. Marvel has those that are larger than life. But they have real problems and are, in essence, normal people. Those that have powers seem to cause more harm than good. Others are heroes out of guilt or coercion. DC comics is different in that their heroes help others for reasons that transcend who they are. (This is out of necessity. No “human” could ever be a member of the JLA.) They typically fight for bigger stakes, and act, effectively, as minor authorities blessed with powers of divine import. How this has been expressed in the comics has changed over time. Originally heroes were worshiped and fawned over; now they are feared and considered suspect. Marlus doesn’t understand why the JLA fights, or to what end they will go to make peace. Martian Manhunter reveals that he had befriended Marlus’s father, long ago, but the story fits in with Marlus’s own account of a fireman and a police officer who were the best of friends, and no matter what rose to the call of justice; that is, until one of them died—the fireman. The firefighter is revealed to be Marlus’s father, who the Martian Manhunter was powerless to save because of the raging fire. The traumatic event founds the rest of Marlus’s life, who he becomes. Marlus is a reporter with a superhero fetish because he desperately, deep down, desires to understand why his father had to die, why no cape came to save him. This suspect, cynical fascination with heroes represents the modern understanding of metahumans (constrained by binaries) as threats to our autonomy. Equally, they are fawned over, adored, worshiped, replied upon, and act as the foundation hermeneutic for idyllic Justice (with a capital “J”), which every human being inclines toward, despite what French Deconstructionists have suggested.
Therefore, in the uniform room, as Marlus takes in the sights of the Flash and Green Lantern’s costumes, when he sees the fragment of Doomsday’s carapace, it reminds him of the cost of heroism. One can “admire” the acts of generosity of another, so long as that person remains and keeps on doing the good deeds. “Appreciation,” on the other hand, implies a mutual respect based on intimate understanding. Marlus loves Superman because Superman was willing to die to save the planet, just like his own father was willing to die to save a building, and those inside it. The final reveal that the fireman was Marlus’s father is as cathartic as it is moving.
When Marlus works up the courage to confront the heroes, to reveal the true origin of the conflict that culminates in the narrative’s climax, he matures into something greater than himself: his transcendence of his mortal coil. (In doing so, he is made capable of inheriting the role of his father, the “original” hero of Marlus’s worship.) A subtle biblical reference puts this all in perspective as Marlus takes a leap of faith and attempts to communicate with with JLA personally. Reminiscent of Luke 8:42b-48, Marlus seeks out Superman (i.e. Jesus) and tugs on his cape. It is a divine act, one that “heals” Marlus of his cynicism and doubts about heroes, and restores his child-like awe of admiration for his heroes and their capacity to save the world. Considering the perspective of Marlus, one can imagine what it was like for the woman in Luke to reach out and touch, what she believed to be, God:
As Jesus went, the people pressed around him. And there was a woman who had had a discharge of blood for twelve years, and though she had spent all her living on physicians, she could not be healed by anyone. She came up behind him and touched the fringe of his garment, and immediately her discharge of blood ceased. And Jesus said, “Who was it that touched me?” When all denied it, Peter said, “Master, the crowds surround you and are pressing in on you!” But Jesus said, “Someone touched me, for I perceive that power has gone out from me.” And when the woman saw that she was not hidden, she came trembling, and falling down before him declared in the presence of all the people why she had touched him, and how she had been immediately healed. And he said to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace.”
Of course, the cliché of Marlus utilizing his new found courage for wooing the woman of his dreams at the comic’s conclusion is the natural outworking of this courage. It serves to illustrate that Marlus has conquered his personal nemesis: his own inadequacy, and inability to see himself as being of worth to others, which was manifested in his investigative journalism, an art predicated on self promotion and entrepreneurship.
Welcome to the Working Week is a rare species of comics. It’s well written, informative, eccentric, and self-aware. Patton Oswalt has always been vocal about his love for comics in his standup, but his awareness of the mythology and its inner workings is profound. The comic assails convention by breaking the expectations that substantiate the genre. The cataclysmic battle at the comic’s conclusion ends in all but a heart beat. The expectations of a long, drawn out run are thwarted by the reality that the Justice League will either fight or die, and that the immediacy of the conflict drives them to victory. Also, the comic’s message never loses it’s momentum. Martian Manhunter clearly let Marlus on the Watchtower to give him a chance to not only see and understand superheroes, but also allow a mortal to influence the gods. Like Jimmy Olsen and Superman’s relationship (or Norman McCay and The Spectre), Marlus’s relationship with those that are beyond his understanding and moral comprehension. The accountability to those that save and to those that need saving is a mutually beneficial relationship. As Marlus reflects on his experiences, his own father, and the renewed faith in the JLA, everything comes to a head: The JLA has gained an ally in a cynical Portland Oregonite.