Monday, March 15, 2010

Communists of the Marvel Universe #002: The Chameleon

(Part two of an ongoing series analyzing the role of communists in the early Marvel Universe and how they have been adapted - or, in some cases, how they glaringly haven’t been adapted - by comics creators in a post Cold War climate.)

The Chameleon, master of disguise, debuted in Amazing Spider-Man #1 as the first villain Spider-Man ever fought. (Chronologically in publication, at least; Kurt Busiek retconned in one or two between Amazing Fantasy #15 and ASM #1, did he not?) He appears here as a spy planning to steal U.S. missile defense plans, and it’s made explicit he’s selling them to the Soviets (“The Iron Curtain countries will pay a fortune for these plans!” he says, and he has a rendezvous at one point with a submarine bearing the hammer and sickle). He decides to impersonate Spider-Man and frame him for the theft, but is eventually apprehended.

If you believe the standard line about alien shapechangers and body snatchers (like the Skrulls Stan Lee introduced not long before this issue in Fantastic Four #2, and the Space Phantom which would come a couple months later in Avengers #2) being a symbol of Cold War paranoia – spies and invasion, your neighbors turning against you, all that stuff - what’s interesting about the Chameleon is that he’s a much more literal take on this theme; he’s not an alien that's supposed to represent the Soviet Union, he’s actually a spy who can make himself look just like you.

The Chameleon is in many ways a very good adversary for Spider-Man. One of the many things Peter Parker represents is our neuroses and paranoia, but of course, in the comic book world, everybody really is out to get him. Since the public at large could be said to be one of Spider-Man’s archenemies, the Chameleon is effective because he can be anyone in that public. The Chameleon can pose as Spider-Man, commit some crimes, then pose as Jameson and write an editorial condemning Spider-Man for the crimes, then pose as civilians demanding he be brought to justice, then pose as the chief of police and declare Spider-Man a wanted criminal, etc. etc. The Chameleon never seems to go that far, but the point is that he could, and there’s got to be a part of Peter Parker’s brain at his most paranoid wondering, “What if they’re all the Chameleon? Every person who’s ever made it tough for Spider-Man and Peter Parker … what if it’s all been one guy all along playing all the parts?”

There’s mileage to be gotten out of the Chameleon, you know!

But while the Chameleon is a moderately popular Spider-Man enemy, he’s never been quite in the A-list for a couple of reasons. For one, he’s not a hand-to-hand fighter, so you can’t fall back on that crutch of just having the good guy and the bad guy punch it out at the end of your story. For another, shapeshifters and face-changers are numerous in a comic book universe, and I suspect many people have the impression that there’s not much that’s unique about the Chameleon (a notion I intend to explode momentarily, just you wait for it). And third, the Chameleon’s motivations are very different than most of Spider-Man’s other enemies. When Spider-Man rips off the door to the fleeing Chameleon’s helicopter and shouts “End of the line for you, commie!” it feels a bit out of place, doesn’t it? Similar to how Spidey rarely fights aliens the way he does in Amazing #2; Lee and Ditko were still toying with the new characters and hadn’t hit upon the now-standard formula of Spider-Man’s adversaries being motivated by base, ugly, selfish desires – money or power or revenge - as opposed to a political cause.

So we’ve got two problems here – the Chameleon is an enemy rooted in politics, which is not the Spider-Man series’ strong suit, and those politics now belong to a bygone era.

Ah, but Stan Lee has helped us out possibly without even knowing it! Look again at the line “The Iron Curtain countries will pay a fortune for these plans!” Why, he’s not an enemy agent doing his duty after all, he’s in this for the money. Neophyte, na├»ve Spidey is wrong - The Chameleon’s not a “commie,” he’s a freelancer!

Which brings me to my point about what makes the Chameleon unique in a universe of villains who do the same thing as him. It’s because most other shapeshifters in comics have a “true” face. Skrulls “really” look like green dudes with pointy ears and weird chins, Mystique looks like a blue chick with red hair. But the Chameleon? He looks like this:

The Chameleon has no “real” appearance; he doesn’t change his face, he puts one on. He’s a blank canvas. At some point he made the transition from wearing masks to actually having his skin replaced with some sort of synthetic shapechanging material (although he seems to be back to masks as of a recent, and actually quite good, arc on Amazing Spider-Man). The '90s Spider-Man cartoon took this a step further by never having the Chameleon speak unless he was “in character”; at least once he even turned into somebody else solely for the purpose of delivering one line.

When he was writing the books, J.M. DeMatteis noted all this himself and came up with a backstory to explain. The Chameleon was born Dmitri Smerdyakov and was Kraven the Hunter’s boyhood servant (and possibly half-brother). He idolized young Kraven, but Kraven treated him like crap, so Chameleon developed a sense of worthlessness and became the Chameleon so he could sublimate his own identity in favor of others’. DeMatteis got some good stories out of this (he seemed to have a fondness for the character), but it didn’t exactly turn the Chameleon into one of Spidey’s archenemies (though to be fair, DeMatteis probably wasn’t shooting for this anyway). His motivations are still a bit murky; Spider-Man’s villains aren’t usually quite so complex (both a strength and a weakness – they don’t threaten to steal the spotlight from Spider-Man like some other heroes’ villains do, but it makes them a bit interchangeable). I don’t know, maybe it’s a bit of a Batman villain idea?

Or, perhaps, a bit selfishly, a bit snottily, but probably honestly, it’s not what I would have done.

“What would you have done, Justin?”

Gosh, since you asked:

I’d make it so you don’t know who the Chameleon ever really was. Fred Van Lente’s set this up a bit, actually, in that recent arc I mentioned by having him insist that Dmitri Smerdyakov was “just one of his faces.” For whatever reason, the Chameleon makes himself faceless and has a talent for disguise; if you like the DeMatteis feelings-of-worthlessness thing, you can read it that way, but I’m not going to bring it up. He’ll basically work for whoever’s willing to hire him, but his rates are considerably reasonable considering the level of skill and expertise he brings to the table, and that’s because the money he makes only covers running his operation and a few creature comforts (I’m not going to ditch the fact that this is a dude who looks sharp in a robe). The reason he’s available for hire is because he’s a blank canvas not just in appearance but also in motivation; these missions give him a superficial sense of purpose in the same way that the masks give him a superficial sense of identity. He has no loyalty, no agenda. He’ll work for HYDRA, the Red Skull, Al Qaeda, the Leader, Doctor Octopus, no questions asked, no judgment passed. Hey, he’d even work for the good guys if they’d be willing to pay him (one of my favorite ever comic book moments is in JLA: Rock of Ages when Batman simply outbids Lex Luthor for the Mirror Master’s services).

He still isn’t motivated by a simple base desire like most of Spider-Man’s villains, but it’s okay now. A Chameleon with no motivation, rather than a political one, is such an outlier that he becomes unique and interesting – the exception to the rule, rather than a data point that just doesn’t quite fit.

Or, if you like, maybe he does have a selfish motivation – maybe this is all done out of boredom!

All of which is a lot of elaboration to say that the Chameleon is easy to remove from the Cold War aesthetic because it’s not important to him in the first place. If you ignore the hammer and sickle on that submarine in Amazing Spider-Man #1, there could be anybody in that submarine; it doesn’t matter. Because there’s always somebody out there who’d like to get their hands on the nation’s missile defense secrets, and there’ll always be somebody who’d be willing to steal them.


plok said...

That's a pretty good Chameleon! And yet I'd try to go in a different direction if it were me, because I'm obsessed with what a perfect Ditko villain he is. A man with a perfectly ordinary amorality, not superhuman except in the sense you note, that he could be anyone...and yet I don't think for Ditko this would mean "fifth columnist" as much as it would mean someone who denies that A is be perfectly and ordinarily amoral the Chameleon would need something important to not care about, something to be an Atlas Shrugged villain I think he's an American, something in me rebels at him being anything but an American. Something beautifully Ditko-ish about him not having any deep motivations -- Ditko wouldn't respect these anyway, he'd say "what does it matter what motivates evil men"! So I'm on board with the mystery, but the Chameleon's just like Iago in my eyes: he just does bad things because he's no good, not because he believes in anything: he's just a self-deluding cynic, he just has no values, that's all you can know about him...he changes colour according to what's in the background, but he doesn't care what it is.

In a way, the perfect Spider-Man villain: he's the guy who doesn't stop the crook, but then doesn't care that Uncle Ben gets killed either, because he got his. We could call him a psychopath, but then Ditko wouldn't medicalize him like that -- that'd be dignifying him. "Pity for the guilty is treason to the innocent", and all that. Guy doesn't deserve a face of his own!

In that sense, I think the Soviet Union's not quite so easy to replace here...there's a way in which it's ludicrous to think of caring that the Chameleon's selling missile secrets to France or China or Iran or whatever when what he has to do is not care about something really obviously A-is-A wrong, something with a kind of black-and-white balance. What could he sell to Al-Quaeda, after all? Not missile defence plans, anyway.

Hmm, rambling a bit...too sleepy to do this justice at the moment, will have to return later!

Josh said...

This might sound simple, but I like the idea of him as a master of disguise. He uses no high tech scifi gear but is actually just a keen observer, an amazing makeup/costume artist, and the greatest actor of all time. Which is actually the closest thing that he has to a super power.

Justin said...

Josh: That's basically what Fred Van Lente did in that recent arc. The synthetic skin is gone and he's back to disguises. They shows scenes of him "practicing" the people whose faces he takes, listening to answering machine messages to get the voice down.

There's also a bit about how he manages to impersonate people that he knows relatively little about - he's banking on the "Does anybody really *know* anybody else?" factor. The thematic meat you get from this is an exploration of the tendency of people to interpret out-of-character behavior as being more truthful, somehow - if the Chameleon replaces you and starts acting weird in front of your friends, people say, "Huh, I guess that's what he was *really* like all along." The easiest way to impersonate someone, ironically, is to not try to be like them at all.

It was an interesting story; they were going for a kind of creepy identity thief take on the character (sort of like "Single White Female," except the Chameleon was convinced he could run everybody's lives so much better than they could), which is certainly one way to do it.

Justin said...

Plok: Well, "missile defense plans" are just a MacGuffin obviously, he could be stealing or doing anything, but OH WAIT I think I just saw a direction where one might go with this anti-Objectivist Chameleon.

Because maybe it's that you go through all the trouble of building your life, hard work and all that, and the Chameleon just comes in and profits off your labor, right? The Chameleon doesn't accomplish anything himself; he's just a parasite off "greater" men than himself. This actually would sort of fit with the Van Lente version as well. The Chameleon in that story takes your identity, but he's very judgemental of you as well. He looks at your missed opportunities and your foibles and goes, "Hm; he doesn't *deserve* this life anyway."

Well, I don't know if that's where you were headed at all. I'm only *very* broadly familiar with objectivism - I'm not sure I could actually stomach Atlas Shrugged even for the entirely exploratory purpose of coming to grips with the philosophy.

I'm trying to figure out the other bit of the Chameleon, which is why he'd know Kraven; would this totally amoral dude have *friends*, or even seek out company? Hm. Both times Ditko got to draw the Chameleon, I can't get over how he always drew him wearing a big comfy robe; the Chameleon is a man of *leisure,* so maybe that's where Kraven comes in - just somebody else that Chameleon is spongeing off of so that he doesn't have to do the hard work himself.

This Ditko-y Chameleon's something to think about, all right.

plok said...

Oh yeah, that works perfectly! I thought it was all pretty consonant with what you were saying anyway, surely the sign of when you're striking oil...but definitely, that's what you can substitute for the USSR: the outrage of being stolen from. People rob banks in comics all the time, but the Chameleon can rob something more personal, and the way he does it is even more of a violation. Ooooh, I like it. The big comfy robe is great, he's not even using what he steals, he's just turning it into personal luxury, you could have a cure for cancer and he'd just steal it and sell it, doesn't care, he's the ultimate cynic. I like it because it has a bit of a Kirby flair too, only natural since Kirby and Ditko were both interested in a similar definition of villainy -- and in that sense, the Chameleon and Kraven are natural evil teammates, one passionate and physical and overwhelmingly concerned with trophies, symbols of dominance, evidence of having beaten a powerful foe as proof of his own identity's awesomeness...a primitive! While the other's disinterested, decadent, sardonic, more concerned with effects than essences, and eschews identity completely...thoroughly a modern. The Chameleon would think Kraven was amusing, and Kraven would think the Chameleon's a valuable asset as an arranger...someone to play Don King for him, get him into the country and out again, a sort of international "native bearer" who knows about faking passports, making contacts, arranging escapes, making pocket money by finding contractors interested in Kraven's unique services. Neither one would see the other as a threat: Kraven would see the Chameleon as an occasional facilitator, the Chameleon would see Kraven as a nice little point-and-click earner he sometimes uses.

As far as Objectivism goes, don't bother, as philosophy about the only thing you can say for it is that it's more responsible than Scientology. Not exactly a high bar! You should definitely look at John Galt's speech in Atlas Shrugged, though, because I swear to God everything you've heard about it is true!

plok said...

Funny how if you take away the Cold War from Igor, he seems to need more character stuff to do, an arc of his own...but take it away from the Chameleon and it's better to have him with less business, more abstraction...

Justin said...

Yeah, it's sort of interesting then that writers keep insisting on "foreign agent/enemy of the state". I suppose it's a matter of looking back at Amazing Spider-Man #1 and going "That's the source material, that's how it's supposed to be," but I think there's more to be gained in adhering to the spirit of the law than the letter. David Michelinie had the Chameleon say explicitly that his ultimate goal was the destruction of the United States, but why should the Chameleon care about that? What did the US ever do to him but provide a market for his services?

Also, the Kraven-Chameleon dynamic you lay out is perfect! Makes total sense, and it kinda makes me wish they'd *always* appeared together.

plok said...

Super-Villain Team-Up! I think I'd read a Chameleon/Kraven ongoing in much the same spirit as Power Man/Iron Fist.

The foreign agent thing is probably a good example of one of those snowball mistakes -- and maybe even a weird need to denature that kind of threat: not the enemy within, but the enemy without, well that's all neat and tidy then! Not that I want to return to the days of Red Paranoia, but that's too much like eating the cake and having it too...better to thoroughly junk the Cold War mindset if you're going to get rid of "the commies", lose the anti-American allegiance stuff...why would a chameleon have allegiances anyway?

It amazes me that there's still life in all this stuff! Kirby and Ditko and even Stan Lee knew what they were about when it came to designing this stuff. Almost makes you want to just list the less-appreciated writers and artists who were also especially good at that: JR Sr., Dave Cockrum, Arnold Drake, John Buscema...those guys just threw shit down on paper and got it right the first time, presto you've got a new character who can go thirty or forty years for you easy. Alternatively, there's the people who can look at something brilliant somebody else made and go "no, it's like this", like Paul Grist took Thomas and Robbins' Union Jack and brought it back to life with Jack Staff...

Justin said...

I know!

It's a marvelous thing about old superhero comics, that we can all interpret them in new and exciting ways going on fifty years after the fact. I mean, the back-and-forth in the Igor post produced some very interesting stuff, and yet all of it comes from the text; there's extrapolation, of course, but it's all rooted in the material, it's just reading between the lines.

I think, frankly, that modern-era superhero comics think TOO MUCH about what they're doing. The writers plan what's going to happen and what it means thematically ahead of time, which makes for a unified story, and yet there's precious little room for *exploration*; all the cards are laid out on the table.

Those guys who "threw shit down on paper and got it right the first time" - that's the truest expression of the magic of those comics; it's not like Stan Lee & Co. came up with these grand thematic statements about what they were working on, it just CAME THROUGH when they were trying to sell more magazines to children.

Well, this has got me all hopped up on a "Commerce sometimes produces the truest art" kick.

I really must get around to reading Jack Staff; I *love* Union Jack, after all.

plok said...

I didn't see why I would like Jack Staff before I read it...but it's got a whole lot of purely joyous energy to it, it looks great, it's got wonderful lettering, once it comes out in colour it starts being an object of obsession. I don't even really know what's so great about it, but then I don't really know what's so great about superheroes either. It's a mystery!

And...Union Jack, yes, a brilliant idea! Jack Staff's a lot like that, only it's working-class not upper-crust. Which is great -- I hope Paul Grist eventually does an homage to that fantastic Frank Robbins splash page where the Invaders are set down to dinner with Lord Falsworth and family...a RIDICULOUSLY awesome page, if you know the one I'm thinking of, it's the one where John Falsworth has big buck teeth and a monocle, and the Human Torch looks ill-at-ease among the hoity-toity...

Oh gonna have to dig that out now.

Justin said...

Goodness, I was certainly in high spirits last night. And yet I take nothing back.

As for Union Jack, I've actually only ever read one issue of The Invaders; my affection for the concept comes from that Stern/Byrne Captain America story where Joe Chapman takes up the role. And it's the working class stuff that makes it really interesting to me there, as well - the current Falsworth heir's not up for the job, it's got to be a dockworker's son, and there's those captions at the end about Britain no longer being a global empire. I think you could've gotten a GREAT Union Jack solo series out of it - the relationship between the Falsworth heir and Chapman. ("You...always were the stronger of us two, Joe." What an intriguing line!) Did UJ and Captain Britain ever hang out? You could get some mileage out of that as well - England's Finest Comics!


Justin said...

Man, Anonymous is such a faithful commenter, shame I have to keep deleting his/her contributions.

You know, I would ALMOST keep them up if they'd make a small contribution to discussion. "You know, speaking of Stern/Byrne Captain America, I know I'm in a small minority here but I've always thought Joe Rubenstein was the better inker for Byrne than Terry Austin. Oh, also: MEGAN FOX BIKINI PHOTOS!!!! (link)

But then, they'd have to start actually formatting their HTML/links correctly too.

plok said...

LOVED those Rubenstein inks!