Richard Thomas's mastery of the mock-heroic

The librettist finds a kind of poetry in footwear.

"You can never have enough hats, bags and shoes" according to Ab Fab's Patsy, and recently Hilary Clinton has seemed inclined to agree, with her comments on handbags as some sort of lingua franca amongst women (heaven forefend that we should have anything more important to discuss).

Richard Thomas is no stranger to controversy, having written the peerless - and deeply divisive - Jerry Springer: the Opera. (And see Alexandra Coghlan's review of his return to scabrous form, Anna Nicole). When the BBC screened Jerry Springer in 2005 it received a record 50,000 complaints, and right-thinking Christian evangelists played merry havoc with the national tour. With his new song and dance show, Shoes- The Musical, which just opened at Sadler's Wells, it's almost as though, having had his fingers so scorched by the experience, Thomas looked through the librettist's list of deeply uncontroversial topics, and hey presto, got it, shoes.

"Shoes have become a female obsession," twitter the programme notes. Really? I, for one, am shoe-blind, a Manolo Refusenik, a Vivienne West-wouldn't, and always thought they were made by a load of old cobblers trying to part you from your cash. So I wasn't exactly the most rapture-ready of Sadler's Wells punters, some of whom had clearly worn their extra special shoes for the occasion.

Act one didn't give a determined old shoe-sceptic too much cause to change their mind. The choreography by Stephen Mears and his team is vivacious and witty, and we quickly establish that their highly versatile dancers can dance in any footwear: even flippers. And yes, we also got it that shoes are performative: they make you move in different ways. But it did feel like an overplayed parade of brands - Uggs, Crocs, Hush Puppies, Birkenstocks (worn by the Nazarene, natch).

I'm a big fan of Thomas's deliberate collisions - or car-crashes, depending on your point of view - of high and low art: he mashed the sacred and the profane to great effect in Jerry Springer, with its incantatory, aria-singing "crack whores", and its blend of things eschatological with things scatological (Jesus in a nappy). But when bathos is the only trick it starts to wear a little threadbare (more pathetic than bathetic). It's not, apparently, enough to name shoes to make a song-and-dance hilarious. Or so I thought, until about half way through the show when the fortuitous sounds of Italian designer names are twisted into a piece of hymnal music: Miuccia Prada, Oscar de la Renta, and, even better, in a later number, "Salva, salva, salva-tore Ferragamo!"

But generally the whole of the second act seemed to move with more swagger once the knowing name-check had been bounced into something altogether more anarchic, in which footwear is the start, but not the end of the proceedings. We are shown a pregnant, pram-face Cinderella, a few years after the business with the slipper, her Prince Charming having long since become a Prince Char-minger, and a great cameo of Imelda Marcos, who makes like Eva Peron in front of the microphones. Here the choreographers quote the gestures of Evita as she raises her arms in benediction to the masses, explaining the ziggurat of shoes found in the presidential palace with "I did it for tourism!" ("She did it for tourism!")
Thomas has a knack of making demotic language into either light opera or liturgical refrains, so when one character threatens to "put a toilet on your grave" it is taken up like a choral antiphon. Just as the music, from Jonathan Williams and his nifty band, rips about from musical theatre to Bartok, so the dance direction, in the same spirit of hybrid vigour, quotes an alphabet soup of dance styles, from ballroom to hip hop. There's exuberant looting from latin, tap, folk, contemporary and even the silent movies.

My very favourite skit is about the handing of down of wedding shoes. The dancers pose for the happy family album in a huge pewter photo-frame, designed to snap and freeze the moment for posterity. But it gets repeatedly rotated and tumbled round as successive generations trip up, cock up, come out of the closet and fall out, all the while to ripe operatic accompaniment from sassy contralto Gemma O'Duffy.

Thomas is perhaps a natural heir to Alexander Pope as arch exponent of the mock-heroic: the grand form subverted by its subject matter. It seems that when he puts his banal cordwainers to one side - and eschews the Jimmy Choos - he hits on endemic frailties that are really worth making a song and dance about.

Show Hide image

Defining The Defenders: the long history of the superhero team-up

Netflix's new show draws on an established traditon of bringing together disparate characters.

Today Marvel’s The Defenders dropped worldwide. It’s the culmination of Marvel Studios’ interlinked series for Netflix, and all episodes will be available simultaneously as is the streaming services’ wont.

The Defenders, and the Netflix series that have preceded it, seem modelled on how the Marvel Cinematic Universe films have worked in multiplexes. At least superficially. Characters get their own solo films/series, which become increasingly interlinked over time, before all featuring together in an onscreen ‘team up’. Here, they combine against a threat greater than any they could plausibly win against on their own, sparring and generating alliances, friendships and even enmities in the process.

This structure, of course, is Marvel’s film and TV projects aping their source material. Marvel’s comics, and superhero comics more generally, have long relished the "team up" and the "super team". The use of this approach by Marvel’s other media ventures is intuitively right, allowing the mass audience for film and television to experience one of the specific pleasures of how superhero comics work in the characters’ new medium.

The concept of the super team goes back a long way. The Justice Society of America, from Marvel’s Distinguished Competition, is usually considered the first. They debuted in All-Star Comics #3 (1940) and the team consisted of the Flash (the Jay Garrick version, Flash TV fans), Green Lantern, Hawkman, and now lesser known characters like Hour-Man, the Sandman (not the Neil Gaiman one), the Atom, The Spectre and Doctor Fate. Within a few issues Wonder Woman would join: as secretary. Because it was the 1940s.

What’s interesting about this initial super team is that half of these characters were published by All-American Comics (who actually published All-Star) and half by DC Comics themselves, making this an inter-company crossover. (The companies would later merge). It also used to be claimed as the first example of characters created separately, and with no intention of them being connected, interacting. It isn’t. There are countless examples in the pulp fictions of the late nineteenth century, but the claim stood for so long because it felt right that the original super team should be the source of such meta-fictional innovation.

The Defenders were created much later in comics history and first appeared in 1971’s Marvel Feature #1. The team, though, had its origins in the "Titans Three" an informal grouping of heroes who appeared in a three part story serialised across Doctor Strange #183 (November 1969), Sub-Mariner #22 (February 1970), and The Incredible Hulk #126 (April 1970).

All three of those comics were written by Roy Thomas. Caught on the hop by the sudden cancellation of Doctor Strange (#183 was the final issue), he wrapped up ongoing plotlines from the cancelled comic in other series he scripted, bringing the now title-less Strange into those other series in the process. A couple more appearances of the group together followed, before the team was formally named in the aforementioned Marvel Feature #1.

Dr Strange. The Sub-Mariner. The Incredible Hulk. It’s quite likely that anyone reading this who is only familiar with the publicity for Netflix’s The Defenders would be surprised by that roster of headline characters. (And that’s assuming they’re even familiar with Namor the Sub-Mariner, a character of 1939 vintage who has not yet reached the MCU.) This is a radically different group to Daredevil, Jessica Jones (a character not even created until the 21st century), Luke Cage and Iron Fist, the stars of the current TV series. None of the telly team are characters a Marvel zombie would associate with The Defenders, although Iron Fist has been a very occasional member of the team’s roster, as has Luke Cage. (In which context, it’s unfortunate that Iron Fist has been the least liked of Netflix’s series, with a mere 17 per cent approval on Rotten Tomatoes.)

The complete absence of all three of the original Defenders from its television incarnation could be seen as an odd decision. Neither Benedict Cumberbatch’s Steven Strange nor Mark Ruffalo’s Bruce Banner are expected to turn up, even for cameos. Marvel Studios has policed a strict division between its Netflix series and its cinematic outings, despite announcing them as being set in the same "continuity". The fourth "classic" Defender is even less likely to turn up. The Silver Surfer (who joined the team in 1972, less than a year after it was formed) is, due to some bad deal making in the 90s, off limits to the MCU. His film rights sit with Fox, who utilised him in the rightly all but forgotten Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer (2007). 

One of the reasonably consistent features of previous incarnations of The Defenders is that the characters have generally faced mystical threats. They first teamed up to fight monsters from HP Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos, and generally their antagonists have operated on that kind of scale. With Stephen Strange in the gang, that makes sense. You don’t need the sorcerer supreme to take out organised crime. But organised crime is largely what you’d expect Daredevil, Luke Cage, Jessica Jones and Iron Fist to take on, especially based on the Netflix versions of the characters. All four are "street-level" heroes, operating in New York, interacting with characters like murderous vigilante The Punisher and Kingpin of Crime Wilson Fisk. Perhaps splitting the difference, their team up series will see them take on The Hand. This is a ninja organisation, with mystical origins, that is nevertheless involved in organised crime and can be presented, as it has been so far for Netflix, within the context of crime stories.

Marvel’s Chief Creative Officer Joe Quesada has defended The Defenders being The Defenders by pointing out that the original team are largely unknown outside comics fandom, and their name means nothing to the public at large. (Although they have, of course, heard of all three of its constituent members.) Of course, for some this might sensible provoke the question "Why use it then?" What is this series called The Defenders at all?

The (original) Defenders were seen as a "non-team", a phrase occasionally used in the pages of their appearances. There was something deconstructive about this kind of team up. It was the pairing of characters who were unsuited to working, even to appearing, together and who would really rather not. (They had, after all, been brought together in the first place simply because Roy Thomas happened to write their separate titles.) The stories told with the group in some ways challenged and confronted the cliches of the decades old form that had begun back in All-Star Comics #3.

The line-up, and tone, of Netflix’s Defenders more resembles that of another, deliberately slightly interrogative non-team, that of the short-lived Marvel Knights book of 2000-2001. This did share The Defenders somewhat abstract definition of "team", featuring characters who didn’t like each other and didn’t want to work together, albeit without any mystical element to how they were brought together. Marvel Knights was also, in theory, the flagship of the line of the same name, at the time edited by... Joe Quesada. Hmm.

In recent years, Marvel have frequently cheerfully remodelled their comics - the original medium for almost all their characters - in order to incorporate changes and innovations pioneered as part of their film and television projects. Remixing their characters and the way they are grouped together in response to the success of their screen empire. The Guardians of the Galaxy, for example, have become more prominent in the comics, while characters whose film rights lie with film companies other than Marvel’s own, such as the aforementioned Fantastic Four, have been pushed to the margins. Accordingly, this August sees the launch of a new The Defenders title, featuring the lineup of characters from the television series.

Some loyal comics readers see this a case of the tail wagging the dog. Others might like to take notice of the metaphor used by comics writer Grant Morrison in his 2011 book SuperGods: Our World In The Age Of The Superhero. There, Morrison argued that comic books, while the medium in which these characters were created, was essentially the discarded booster section of the rocket in which they had been fired into the public consciousness, reaching vastly greater audiences in the process. 

“That’s not The Defenders,” commented a friend of mine on seeing a publicity photograph for the series a few weeks ago. It is now, mate. It is now.