Three-Chord Rock

I’ve recently come across this, I think through Occasional Superheroine. I don’t link, because if you’ve found me, you already found her ten times already…

I think it was Harvey (though it may have been Johnny B…no, pretty sure it was Harvey) who described the “Who Can Beat Who?” scenario as the three-chord rock of superhero fandom; leave aside your Jogs and Marc Singers, this is not the surf, this is the turf. Grade A geeksteak, choicest cut, still moo-ing when they bring it to yuh, practically melts in your god-damn mouth. Now fill your hands, you son of a bitch.

Of course I disagree with many of the evaluations at the link. The X-Men beat Superman? In a word: pshaw. Superman beat Galactus? What, Space-Jehovah? Really? Superman couldn’t beat the Silver Surfer (Space-Elijah?)…he couldn’t beat Odin, either.

Couldn’t beat Harry Potter.

Hmm, I think he could take Gandalf, though…


Three-chord rock.

Here’s what’s fucked about it.

This first came to my attention when I happened upon an argument over Who Could Beat Who: Spider-Man or Darth Vader (one commenter had it: “For God’s sake, Spider-Man’s already a Jedi! He’s like a super-Jedi!!!”). The characters are not commensurable. They live in radically different worlds, with radically different rules. If you like: if Darth Vader appears in Spider-Man’s book, Spidey wins. If Spidey appears in Vader’s book, Vader wins.



Of course this is all quite obvious. BUT. Maybe it’s got hidden depths. Since Gandalf’s “in play”, maybe I could mention my favourite part of the Lord Of The Rings in this connection: the Appendix titled “On Translation”, in which Tolkien reveals the true extent of his maddeningly philological fantasy structure. Bilbo’s name isn’t “Bilbo”, you see. The Brandywine River isn’t called “Brandywine”. These are translations.

These are inventions. In other languages that don’t exist. That then get translated.

Along with everything else around them.

What is the Common Tongue? English? No, it isn’t: it’s only been translated into English. But then in the wake of that translation, other translations must follow: the relationship of the language of the Rohirrim to the Common Tongue is (Tolkien tells us) roughly like the relationship of Old English to Modern English…but not quite. So he imagines a number of words that might have appeared in Modern English from Old English roots (but didn’t) as having done so…and then “translates” these, too, into Modern English expressions that don’t seem totally strange to us because we’ve encountered them before, or at least things like them. Because it’s not quite a one-to-one relation, you see? So he mixes up some linguistic spackle and he rolls over it.

Because Tolkien — I’m not sure this is known — was clearly insane.

Oh, clearly.

“Brandywine”. What he did there, was he made up a word in a language that has never existed (“Baranduin” = “brown water”), and then made a degraded phonological slang-term from it in English (“Brandywine”), and THEN MADE UP AN INTERMEDIATE STEP, in the form of a pun in some “other” language (the language of Bilbo’s real name, the language in which “Meriadoc” is actually “Kalimac”), and invented a post-hoc reason why “Brandywine” would be its best translation into English…WHICH IT ISN’T. Because the pun never existed in the first place, Tolkien just made it up for his own amusement.

You talk about your fantasy. This is fantasy. Tolkien imagines that he found some ancient scrolls, and translated them, but having found that they were written in many different languages that were all related to one another even as our languages are related to one another he had to find a way to map these linguistic variations for his reader by adopting a certain translational strategy which made reference to the history of the European languages as we know it today.

And he did a couple other weird things like that as well, which I don’t have the time to go into here.

But…gosh, eh?


However don’t feel too superior: we do the same thing as Tolkien (albeit in a more lowbrow way) when we ask if Superman can beat up Thor.


What cleverness. Because as I said, these heroes all have their own milieux, and all those milieux are in some essential way incommensurable. The rules aren’t the same. The match-ups are impossible.

And yet I consider it as clear as glass that Superman could not beat up the Silver Surfer, but that Orion could. Shang-Chi beats Peter Cannon, Thunderbolt every time. Even Popeye will get clobbered by Batman, once…but when they meet up again, Batman better watch out.

I am moving and moving, Bloggers, towards a large-ish point about superheroes and the people who read them that I intend to make sometime in the beginning of January…

We have had some daring experiments in this vein. The Al Milgrom (and Roger Stern?) Superman vs. The Hulk still sends a shiver up my spine…note to Matthew, in large part because it’s the first FF/Hulk storyline only re-done Superman-style…

Syzygy Darklock would beat Dr. Strange, I think.

Dr. Doom would fail against Rac Shade…oh my God what a story that would be

If Doc Savage had been in Watchmen, Veidt would’ve been in jail by issue #3, and Dr. Manhattan would’ve been neutralized in issue #6. And then set free again in issue #8.

The Shadow would be immobilized by the Flash, but not Green Lantern.

Green Lantern would beat Dr. Who.

Dr. Who would beat Darkseid.

Captain Marvel and Mighty Mouse would fight to a standstill.

There’s a whole universe of weird, secretive value-judgements here. Forbidden value-judgements. Transgressive value-judgements. There are avenues in our minds that lead through and past the barriers of incommensurability, into a weirdly tolerant Elysium of silliness. Tom Sawyer could beat up Tom Swift, that much is clear. Huck Finn would out-detect the Hardy Boys, given half a chance. It’s not just that the oldest beats the youngest, either: Picard would take Kirk in a fight, even if Kirk would end up getting to the computer first. Spock would miss what Bashir sees. You know it’s true.

Giant-Man would beat Iron Man, if it came down to it.

It’s a weird world.

And all of us the sea, that its waves move across.

More on this later. I feel like Eddie Campbell. Only, you know, without the talent or the smarts.

Okay, taking off for a couple of days! Watch my seat, wouldja?


6 responses to “Three-Chord Rock

  1. Wolverine? Supes would fry him in 30 seconds. C’mon. Also, Power Cosmic is one of the things that works on everybody. Finally: Why no Horse Face Thor. Thor V. Superman is one of the big Superman questions, and Beta Ray Bill is awesome.

  2. People keep telling me that there’s someone named Goku who would beat Superman. I am dubious, but they know more about this Goku character than I do.

    Would Squirrel Girl beat Superman?

    Mr. Incredible vs. the Tick?

    Captain Triumph vs. 3-D Man?

    What about J’onn J’onzz and the Silver Surfer?

    Bugs Bunny and Ambush Bug?

    As for Tolkien… hey, there’s nothing insane about wanting to create verisimilitude! He just wanted the texture of historical messiness in his languages, and more power to him.

    Okay, okay, the Earth-2 thing is on the way.

  3. “Tarzan the monkeyman/swingin’ on a rubber band
    Along came Superman/and knocked him in the garbage can!”

    This was much repeated on the playground in my youth. We thought it very funny, though pretty obvious.

    On the same playground were more serious musings, like “what if God and Superman had a fight?”

    Just thinking out loud, here. I’m not the biggest fan of John Byrne, but I enjoyed his Golden Age Batman meets Captain America Elseworlds-What If (“What Else”?) book. That and the Hulk/Superman book were obviously true labors of love.

    Someday, I’ll finally finish that “Santa Claus vs The Tooth Fairy” story I started writing for my nieces and nephews a dozen years ago…

  4. Can Superman beat Dark Phoenix? Can Ferro Boy? Colossus certainly couldn’t, but Ferro just might have a shot. The X-Men shouldn’t be able to beat anyone unless they really, really have to, at least that’s the way it used to be. In one of the Astonishing issues the X-Men are called the most powerful super hero group, and I thought what? Which version? Because I always thought their charm lied in their underdog qualities. There was that old Iron Man can beat the X-Men debate, and he can, Spider-Man can, Batman could do it easily. It was great how the Wein/Cockrum/Claremont X-Men could never beat Magneto, they never had a chance. It was Magneto who beat Magneto. The X-Men as individual components are a different matter I suppose. Deathstroke beats Wolverine, but Kitty Pryde beats Deathstroke.

    The Brotherhood of Dada beat the Silver Surfer.

    I wonder who would win in a fight, Lovecraft or Poe? Tolkien or Lewis? Kirby or Swan?

  5. Ha, now there’s some food for thought, for sure. Ferro Lad vs. Dark Phoenix, LOVE IT! The Brotherhood of Dada vs. the Silver Surfer, my GOD I would read that!

    I would even read Wolverine/Deathstroke/Kitty Pryde. Seriously. Comic fans are very weird creatures.

    Good point about the X-Men vs. Spider-Man, Iron Man, anyone…especially Magneto, this was one of the great reconstructions of the Claremont/Cockrum era. And then the Claremont/Byrne era, which sees the X-Men get effortlessly beat by him, then almost beat him back, and then finally ACTUALLY beat him for the first time ever. A great comic for fans of the fight!

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