The Phantom Head-Shaver Of Culture-On-Lees, Part 1

Or:

Is There Any Love More Pure, Than That Of A Villain For His Toupee?

Hello, halloo, and alackaday, Bloggers: I’m back in the Little Smoke for a day or two, again.

This one will have a certain amount of geeky pop-culture content to it…but, I hope, also a little bit of larger illumination worth sticking around for even if you don’t like that Star Wars stuff.

And then the next part will wind everything up as neat and tidy as an episode of The Price Is Right, I promise.

So if you’ve bought all that, I’ll follow Machiavelli’s advice and plunge right into the more hardcore nerdy material right away.

So let’s talk X-Men.

Specifically, let’s talk the character of Professor X, and what’s happened to him between the time of Stan and Jack, and the time of Whedon and Cassaday. You already know, I hope, that the special, addictive frisson of Marvelishness in the early days was down to its weird combination of superhero, romance, and most importantly monster genres — excepting only Captain America, none of Marvel’s early characters was exactly meant to be comforting, but instead filled with an electric tension, a sometimes-subliminal aspect of danger and threat that went hand-in-hand with their outwardly uncomplicated (and therefore satisfying) heroism. And Professor X (along with the rest of the X-Men, naturally, but we’re just talking about Professor X here) is an absolutely classic example of how this tension was handled in those early days…so therefore, he’s also an absolutely classic example of what’s happened since then. And not just in the ghetto of the comics world, either: why, haven’t you heard we’re not a ghetto anymore? Well, we’re not; we’ve pretty much taken over, as you’ll see if you just look around you…as Thomas Disch said about science fiction, comics have become “the dreams our stuff is made of”…

So let’s take a look at the good Prof, shall we?

What do you notice first about him?

That’s right: he’s as bald as a cueball.

And right here, right away, is a major Marvel innovation. Because don’t you know that bald men are usually villains? Evil masterminds, to be precise: and that’s just what Charles Xavier is, an evil mastermind, except for the one weird little detail where he’s actually not, he’s actually good, in fact he’s very good, as good as Michael Rennie in The Day The Earth Stood Still, just to pick an SF reference at random…

But…he doesn’t look it, does he?

All the trappings of villainy are there, and I dare you to say they’re by accident. Okay, he doesn’t have the Evil Goatee. We’ll get to the Evil Goatee. The Evil Goatee would’ve perhaps been one step too far; how could Professor X have been at all presented as an ambiguous figure if the Evil Goatee had been there too, I ask you? It would’ve been stacking the deck against him. Might as well have given him a Hitler moustache, as the Evil Goatee. I’m telling you. But, everything else is there, agreed? If he’s nothing else, Professor X is, graphically, conceptually, a menacing figure.

Except, foul is fair, and fair foul, and he isn’t a menacing figure. Not really.

Well, or at least anyway he wasn’t

Most of the point of all this is going to have to wait on the second installment of this essay, of course, but (still following Machiavelli!), let’s look at the association of villainousness with weird facial hair, baldness, etc. I have a whole riff on this involving the infamous Grey aliens late of X-Files fame which unfortunately I’m not prepared to share with you at this point, but oh well! Let’s press on, regardless. Because there’s certainly enough there to work with: even leaving aside Ming The Merciless, has there been a meaningful length of time in at least American cinema, where the revelation of a villain didn’t in some way include or reference the revelation of his baldness? Until it really becomes rather a question: who’s the worse villain, the one who wears the toupee, or the one who doesn’t even need to? I hope the symbolic implication is obvious: the bald pate is the real and authentic self of the villain, and if at best it reveals an emotional stuntedness that his bad behaviour orbits, like a big spotty white sun, at worst it reveals a moral vacuum that is at once also an entire absence of moral gravity. Pure evil, baby, is revealed with the lifting of the toup, as often as not. Because that nihilistic mirror of vanity is also the abyss, that sometimes gazes into you. Even when we’re only talking about stuffy old Deans, or hypocritical old Dads, in Eighties teen movies.

Hmm…maybe I should’ve subtitled this post “Your Bra-Bomb Better Work, Nerdlinger!

But anyway. Yeah, very little actual villainy in the old Eighties coming-of-age retarded sex farce. But still. Doesn’t mean that stuff wasn’t there. And I’m going to just leave you to fill in the blank I’ve left here about the Prof’s paralysis, and how it too creates menace, because I want to swiftly get onto what Stan and Jack did with the baldness (which is actually precisely the same thing they did with the paralysis — well, okay I’ll tell you, is the spider not a particularly terrifying type of narcissist, sitting at the centre of its suspiciously Cerebro-like web? — oh, and the telepathy and the whole school for creepy obediant hive-like mutants thing, almost forgot about that…really it’s a remarkable rehabilitation of the monster genre those two old guys accomplished, huh?), and how it’s a remarkable rehabilitation of the…

Oh, what?

Yes, but anyway…yes. Well, you can see it as clearly as I can, I’m sure. Tension. We’re being told two contradictory things at the same time, and the only way to match them up is to not match them up, but to change the way we process their meanings instead. Doubtless that was sci-fi enthusiast Jack, mostly; anyone who’s read Stan’s work knows that he was a truly great lover of the dramatically obvious, and therefore a writer who parceled out his dissonances as plot-oriented BANG moments where characters finally saw the light, etc…whereas anyone who’s read Jack knows he liked to build in dissonance practically at the initial character design stage…I sometimes wonder what he would have made of a licensed James Bond comics property…

But anyway again!

That was the genius of early Marvel, back in the Sixties: not to simply re-make the monsters into heroes, but to make monstrosity and heroism part of each other. And now that I think of it, that’s the one thing I liked about Tim Burton’s Batman Returns

But more on that later too. For now there’s just one more note to drop, before leaving the geeky world of comics, and that is:

Is there any love more pure, than that of a villain for his toupee?

The toupee bit’s rather time-honoured, you see. And it signifies something. Something very specially villainous, in fact, a particular accent of villainy that the plain old bald evil Ming-mastermind head can’t get across on its own. If you’re foolish enough to read the second part of this essay, you’ll see what it is quick enough, I promise…why I may even get into scalp-peeling baldness as a kind of response to the earlier form of exposure that we know as toupee-removing baldness…

And sadly, only the true nerds, le vrai nerds, know what I’m talking about there, but…

Sudden apparent digression: so today I was walking down the street, and I passed a young guy with a clean-shaven head.

And I thought: here’s a guy who’s trying to look tough. But, does he also know that he’s trying to look evil? And does he also know that he’s trying to look smarter than everyone around him.

It’s a very puzzling question. If we uncritically accept — and of course I’m not for a moment suggesting that we should! — the idea that Baldness = Mastermindness = Evilness, and if we throw in the recent equation stating Baldness = Baddassness and then season the whole mixture with a pinch of Baldness = Sexiness…hell, I wouldn’t even throw away the idea that Baldness = Mindreaderness! Then we have a truly peculiar explanation for a recent trend in hairstyling, and a new overall Baldo-Nexus that is reorganizing our previous symbolic notions (at least as far as popular entertainments go) about what baldness means. The hero can be bald now, and therefore the super-villainy of all villainousness can be more easily represented in contrast by a marvellous shock of gorgeous golden hair. For example. Well, it’s only fair-is-foul again, but this time, this time I hope you’ll notice, it’s fair-is-foul with a twist. Or should I say, with a swerve?

I swear to God this will all make sense later, really. But what I’m saying for now is: are we really ready for a world where baldness, or a goatee (sorry, I’ve haven’t addressed the goatee nearly enough, if one of you would be so kind as to pick it up in the comments that’d be great) implies heroism straight-up, as baldness used to imply villainy straight-up? Consider that part of our current fascination with the heroism — no, not heroism, it’s something different now…I’ll say righteousness — implied by baldness comes out of a kind of prison chic that’s bubbled up to our (usually pretty hairy themselves) culture creators…oh come ON! You know that’s true, right? Come on, surely I’m not saying anything too far-fetched when I aver (yes, Ed: aver) that a lot of our noted creators of culture choose to play on a certain guilt, that they probably feel themselves too, and that that’s what makes our modern-day heroic (or rather, righteous) figures more Vin Diesel than Humphrey Bogart…?

Again I promise: it’ll all come clear. Eventually.

But I wonder about that guy I saw with the bald head walking down the street. It’s awful, but…I almost wanted to punch him in the head, just to see what he’d do. To see if my theory about him was true or false. To see if, underneath the fashion, there was a fear. After all, in our days fear is a pretty generalized type of thing: every aging fratboy looks like The Master, it seems, and explain that

Of course it’s all about disguise, isn’t it?

No, literally: it’s about disguise.

You see, I know something.

Okay, I’ll stop teasing my next post now. But now, also, notice that under Whedon and Cassaday the character of Professor X has been handled quite differently, though on the same gripping-points, as the original? This Professor isn’t exactly good…because graphically, conceptually, the menace that he used to exude has been beggared, and it needs to be replaced by something else. Well, anyway that’s how I’m sure Joss has it (or has had it — I haven’t read Astonishing for a while) figured — as Grant Morrison had it figured before him, too.

Not necessary, though, in my opinion: underneath everything we’ve laid on top of it, the menacing elements of Marvel comics, that were designed in at the beginning by Jack, still make an interesting laminate with the heroic ones he also designed in. Those two things are in no danger of peeling apart, I think. You could show Professor X knitting sweaters for his students. He’d still be one creepy sonofabitch.

But, that’s all about the Old Bald. The question is, does he fit in with the New Bald?

Bald = Evil, Bald = Smart, Bald = Badass, Bald = Sexy, Bald = Threateningly tough, Bald = Righteous.

Threatening = Smart?

Evil = Righteous?

Swerve.

Tune in next time for clarification.

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9 responses to “The Phantom Head-Shaver Of Culture-On-Lees, Part 1

  1. Many reactions to (the first part of) this.

    First, let’s compare Professor X with his most obvious DC counterpart, Niles Caulder. Both wheelchair-bound geniuses, but one’s totally bald, while the other one’s got hair and a beard. And Niles Caulder is far more evil than Professor X. (We could also, if we wanted, bring in a couple of supporting characters from DC’s old Captain Atom comic: Dr. Megala and Babylon. Dr. Megala seems pretty sinister: he’s bald, with a goatee, is wheelchair-bound, and is in such bad shape physically he’s practically a cyborg. Babylon, his burly attendant, is also bald. Turns out that Megala had some secrets but wasn’t (as I recall) all that bad, and Babylon was actually a pretty good guy.) I don’t care what Marvel’s gotten Professor X up to recently; there’s no way he could be as bad as Niles Caulder.

    has there been a meaningful length of time in at least American cinema, where the revelation of a villain didn’t in some way include or reference the revelation of his baldness?

    There must have been. Mustn’t there? I mean, I know there are examples: Luthor, Vader… But it’s not as sweeping a thing as all that, is it?

    This also brings in that stuff we were talking about with Brainiac 5’s hair.

    Eighties teen movies: remember the bald vice-principal in the Back to the Future movies? Although he turned out to be not all that bad of a guy, relatively speaking.

    Consider that part of our current fascination with the heroism — no, not heroism, it’s something different now…I’ll say righteousness — implied by baldness comes out of a kind of prison chic that’s bubbled up to our (usually pretty hairy themselves) culture creators…oh come ON!

    The bald hero I’m thinking of right now is John Henry Irons, who’s bald *with* a goatee. As was Green Lantern in the Justice League cartoon. Come to think of it, Black Lightning’s bald now too. And they’re all quite definitely good guys. And, I’m sure not coincidentally, black guys, which reminds me of this… was it a Dave Barry column I read? He said, and I paraphrase, black guys can get away with shaving their heads because they look good bald. A white guy who shaves his head looks like a giant thumb. Anyway, I think they word you’re looking for is not righteousness but austerity. Which I would associate with the Boom generation except that they’ve never really associated themselves with baldness much. Rather the opposite, really.

  2. One thousand points for the bra bomb reference.

    I wonder if Daddy Warbucks would count as a comic strip icon of baldness who was also intended to be cuddly and nonthreatening? I personally always found him creepy and disturbing, but it had nothing to do with his appearance, and I’m pretty sure his creator meant him to be heartwarming and loveable.

    Another possible association of the bald head in comics iconography is enlightenment and spirituality: back in the early Seventies, I was blown away when Ollie Queen turned up with a shaved pate during his retreat to a zen monastery. (Come to think of it, this was probably around the same time Isaac Hayes first unveiled his bare head and instantly transformed everyone’s perception of baldness to one of virility.)

    Meanwhile, Xavier’s counterpart Dr. Niles Caulder had a full head of hair and a thick beard…but he was always far creepier than the bald guy in Westchester…

  3. Pingback: The Phantom Head-Shaver, Part 2 « A Trout In The Milk·

  4. Pingback: Phantom Head-Shaver Part 3 « A Trout In The Milk·

  5. Matthew: Absolutely, there’s no way Charles Xavier could ever be as bad as Niles Caulder! God, I love that character…

    RAB: Yes, Caulder again! It’s fascinating, really…he’s already been “balder” than Xavier could ever hope to be in a million years, and cripes has he had a “lifting the toupee” moment, although refreshingly without any actual lifting of an actual toupee. Now that I think of it, I fear the day when some enterprising writer/artist team reveals that Caulder’s been wearing fake whiskers all this time…

    The Daddy Warbucks thing is interesting. I think it may be a much older baldness-association at work there, than the one I’ve been harping on about here…

    Spot: Am I to call you Spot, now? Anyway, friend…can’t help ya…hopefully it all works out okay…

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